God and Motion

In this post I am looking at Simon Oliver’s Philosophy, God and Motion. You might wonder why motion matters to theology at all. Oliver offers a terse overview of some options concerning the nature of motion: “For Plato, in wholly undualistic fashion, motion is the eternal stability of the Forms; it is, for Aristotle, the means of our passage from potency to actuality, it is, for Grosseteste, the means of the propagation of the universe from the simple, eternal light; it is, for Aquinas, the means of our participation in the eternal dynamism of the Trinitarian life of God” (2). I will, as far as I am able, provide an economic overview of the chapters with some concluding thoughts.

Chapter 1: Plato’s Timaeus

Oliver looks at Plato’s Timaeus to examine Plato’s cosmology of change and becoming, focusing his attention on the nature and purpose of motion in the treatise. The Demiurge forms a hierarchy of motions, based on the World soul’s division into sameness and difference. The sameness governs the motion of the universe, with all other motion participating in it. Mankind comes to move away from base opinion, furthermore, by participation in the motion, symmetry and proportion of the World Soul, which is the “ontological condition of possibility” for knowledge of the forms. Reason itself is a motion, and with all motion knows perfection cyclically, and obtains that perfection as a participation in the forms – most specifically the form of the good. Motion is, therefore, teleologically oriented towards a deeper participation in the Forms, and motion is the mediation between the forms and the cosmos. Oliver provides a nice summary:

The motion which characterises the realm of becoming, therefore, is both beautiful and symmetrical; it is a rational revolution which expresses the harmonic balance of the Good. Thus Platonic cosmology is not an acquisitive exercise which seeks the attainment of facts, after the fashion of an inexorable forward motion towards an indeterminate end. Rather, motion as presented in the Timaeus is the perfect synthesis of the ideal ‘end’ with the embodied means of fulfilment in that end” (28).

Chapter 2: Aristole: Ecstasy and Intensifying Motion

Aristotle followed his teacher in his emphasis on “motion”  as a central defining feature of humanities “enquiry into the nature of the universe and its relation to a transcendent eternal” (29). Here, Oliver argues that motion has a teleological end that, for Aristotle as for Plato, is oriented to the fundamental goal of the Good. For human beings, motion is central to the attainment of virtue in a life worthy of its own end – the virtuous life – and, in Oliver’s description of this movement, “the potential becomes actual and the eternal is glimpsed in time’s movement as motion is intensified as actuality” (30). Motion, for Aristotle, is always moving towards one pole or another, rather than simply being motion for its own sake – it is a “passage” from potency to act. These poles are, Aristotle states, in existence, “…form and shortage of form; in quality, white and black; in quantity, the perfectly normal and an achievement short of perfection” (31). Form, therefore, is not a Platonic transcendental realm, but is the teleological end which nature is oriented.

Like Plato, Aristotle gives primacy to circular motion. Oliver states, “Within locomotion, it is circular motion in place which Aristotle believes is the first and most perfect motion, and this is associated most particularly with the motion of the first heaven. This motion is most perfect because, in being circular, it has no beginning or end; unlike other motions, it has no contrary” (46). Circular motion has no beginning, middle or end – it is fully complete in itself – and is therefore closest to the eternal.

Oliver provides a helpful summary:

Motion can therefore be most generally understood as determined towards a unified end in the Good. As all things, by their natural motion, seek to attain their own actuality, they thereby seek their own particular good which partakes in the perfection of the whole cosmos. It is the Good which constitutes the ultimate and most general final cause of the intensification of being through potency to actuality in ecstatic motion” (49).

Chapter 4: St. Thomas Aquinas – The God of Motion

In order to keep this review under control, I have skipped over his third chapter on Grosseteste, which is incredibly informative and dense, and am going to move right into his discussion of Aquinas. After that, I will skip straight to Newton. Oliver begins by addressing the notion of sacra doctrina in Thomas, which “reorients” humanity to its proper end. What kind of resources does Aquinas’ notion of motion provide sacra doctrina? Primarily, motion finds its orientation in the immanent life of God – in the emanation of the persons of the Trinity – which serves as the undergirding principle of all motion.

Following Aristotle, Aquinas holds that actuality must ontologically precede potentiality (91) – a mover (which is in actuality), is that which moves something from potency to act. The human soul, therefore, is a mover, but it is a moved mover – it is moved by its divine generation from the mind of God (potency) to existence  (actuality). But this raises the question if the mover has to share the same motion as it moves by, as is the case with heat bringing water to boil by sharing its heat. “Must God,” Oliver questions, “be in some sense univocal with the creation he moves?” Aquinas invokes another image, that of a builder and a house, to depict how God relates to his creation. Creatures, therefore, in some sense, resemble God, even though God does not “resemble” creatures (109).

More importantly for Aquinas, and our interests, is the development of motion and sacra doctrina. Oliver notes,

…Aquinas states that he has shown that the purpose of sacra doctrina is ‘to make God known, not only as he is in himself, but as the beginning and end of all things and of reasoning creatures especially’. He is now to show God as the beginning and end of motion, motion being a fundamental characteristic of created nature, for even if something is not itself in motion, it is a crucial aspect of that thing that it is in potency and therefore liable to motion” (106).

Oliver seeks to show that “…motion is not that which separates creation from its creator, but is the very means of their analogical relation” (108). Hinting back at the discussion of univocal predication, Oliver notes that Aquinas utilizes the concept of emanation for the “active self-expression of  a nature in relation to others in the production of another self” (111). God, who is both pure act and motionless, does not lose anything in emanation, but creates out of his superabundance. Aquinas develops this in the hierarchy of being, where the ability to create without loss is tied to the notion of greatness.

Aquinas ties the idea of the eternal law to the divine essence, so that all laws are analogically related to the divine being. Lawfulness is therefore a kind of participation in the eternal law of God, and is necessarily an orientation to the proper end of creatures. As Oliver summarizes, “one might say that the physical motion of bodies and the ethical motion of human souls, which are subject to the different sciences of physics and practical philosophy, are nevertheless held in analogical relation by their participation in eternal law which constitutes the motionless limit and end of all motion, namely the universal good” (125).

Newton and the Non-Trinitarian View of Motion

With Newton, Oliver elides, we lose all notion of participation with God in creaturely reality. Interestingly, Oliver suggests that Newton’s Arianism is partly to blame. God, rather than obtaining the dynamism of a triune life and grounding, analogically, motion in creation, Newton posits a monadic God and an “infinite,” “eternal” and “immutable” creation. What is deemed “absolute space” is now the basis for creation, and, in Oliver’s words, appears to be “begotten” of God: “Whereas, for Aquinas, God creates and sustains the world through Christ’s emanation from the Father, so for Newton, God creates the world in a co-eternal and uncreated absolute space through the exercise of his will” (173). The ontological basis for creation becomes the willed creative act of God – now the economy – rather than the inner-life of God. Objects and creatures, therefore, are ambivalent to motion and rest, and description of that motion and rest is reduced to “basic facts about the nature of a body” without reference to further explanation (168). Again, Oliver summarizes:

The lack of Trinitarian relationality in Newton’s conception of God means that the universe cannot be thought of as a hierarchy and system of related motions which are images of the divine life, but rather as the action of one being, God, within absolute space to instantiate a material body, whereupon the created being retains a primitive state of motion which is discrete and self-explanatory” (174).

Since this overview is already too long, let me stop here. Oliver provides a fascinating look at motion through philosophical theology, and, I think plausibly, highlights the inadequacy of Newton’s account. Concluding with a look at quantum physics and the issue of bi-locality, Oliver critiques Newton and points back to Aquinas as providing a more adequate ontology and cosmology.

What do we think about Aquinas’ use of God’s inner-life in particular? I think it would be an interesting study to look at the result of Newton on theology, tracing that alongside Kant’s critiques and the re-shifting of the doctrine of God to the economy. Any thoughts?


26 thoughts on “God and Motion

  1. Kyle,

    I don’t think Aquinas’ view of God can be Trinitarian; it can be said to be Trinitarian, but how so in a meaningful way? If the persons don’t define the shape of the being of God; then how can Oliver point back to Aquinas as providing a more adequate ontology/cosmology? I guess relative to Newton this may be the case; but we aren’t really limited to this cast of characters, then.

    I just find Aquinas’/Aristotle’s notion of motion and impassibility, for example, at odds with what Scripture discloses about God’s life ad intra through ad extra (in Christ Jn 1.18). Beyond that, as noted, if we start with categories of “actual infinite” how do we end up with the Christian God?

    Why not just bring up Barth?

  2. Bobby, could you expand a bit on the ad intra through ad extra distinction you made? I’m not sure I follow that.

    Aquinas view is certainly trinitarian, even though it might not be trinitarian in the same sense as more contemporary thinkers desire – it is still trinitarian. Olivers’ concern is that God’s life ad intra is the ontological grounding for creaturely reality – particularly its teleology. Aquinas provides a participationist metaphysic, which seems to be what Oliver wants (given that it is written in the Radical Orthodoxy line we should not be surprised by this).

  3. In other words, (on the ad intra/extra) don’t you see Aquinas’ doctrine of God as making a distinction between God’s immanent and economic life? Yeah, the via negativa should go too.

    And when you say that Aquinas’ theology is “Trinitarian,” how? Isn’t Aquinas committed to a “substance ontology” wherein we have a Monadic notion of God or Godness from whence the persons “subsist?”

    I haven’t read much on the Rad Orth; can’t really comment on that.

    Sorry I’m not really engaging Oliver too much; but I thought sense nobody had commented on the post yet I would take the opportunity to talk a bit about Aquinas’ view of God :-).

    • Bobby, yeah, I guess I’ve never bought the critique on substance ontology. I just don’t think it follows that a commitment to substance ontology undermines one’s ability to postulate truly trinitarian thought. I’m certainly not an expert on Aquinas, and I would like to hear more on his trinitarian thought. Anyone done a lot of work in this area?

      • I’ve read parts of the Summae, done one paper on Aquinas’ view of Nature/Grace, and have read critiques of his thought — which is where I got my ideas from (I certainly didn’t come up with that myself ;-). Much of my thinking in this direction first came from Ron Frost (who did engage Aquinas quite a bit for his diss.).

        But yeah, if there’s any Thomist experts out there it would be great to hear from one of them.

        If scholastic Calvinism is any kind of moniker then I think a relational accounting of God as Triune should become quite clear (and quickly) — i.e. God as Lawgiver=the “unmoved mover”, etc. — not very Trinitarian or relational to my eye. Of course each of these guys (like Perkins) had their own idiosyncratic ways of appropriating Aquinas’s appropriation of Aristotle.

  4. Hey guys… admittedly I don’t exactly qualify as an expert in Aquinas, but I did do my Master’s research on his Trinitarian theology and I am a pretty sympathetic with Augustine’s/Aquinas’ account. Let me explain Aquinas’ Trinitarianism as I understand it (primarily from the Summa Theologiæ)… particularly the person-essence distinction and how I think it is clearly Trinitarian.

    I take Bobby’s general point to be that ‘substance metaphysics’ ends up being essentialist while ‘relational ontology’ is more personalist. That is, the substance metaphysics of the classical tradition does not allow the notion of person to inform the concept of essence, thus it tends towards abstraction and makes person an incidental afterthought (rather than contributing something to the essence). I hope I understand at least that part of the concern correctly (if so the first essay by Emery I recommend at the bottom is the most direct answer, as well as ch. 7 in Levering).

    Assuming that’s the concern, let me give a schematic of how procession-relation-person flow out of Aquinas’ thought. Quoting Emery:

    “Since the divine person is conceived as a subsisting relation, the study of the person must be preceded by a study of the relation. And since the procession is what our mind perceives as the foundation of the relation, the study of the relation must be preceded by a study of the procession. The Treatise on the Trinity (procession-relation-person) is constructed according to its purpose, which is to show three divine persons in their subsistence, their properties and their actions on our behalf.”

    Consequently, the trinitarian treatise of the Summa begins with what is common to God, and then progressively moves toward what is proper to each person. This common/proper distinction is not De Deo Uno (the one God) vs. De Deo Trino (the Triune God), rather it responds to the Arian controversy, which challenged the divinity of the three on the basis of the one, and follows the distinction worked out by Basil of Caesarea: “The divinity is common (koinon) but the paternity and the filiation are properties (idiomata); and from the combination of these two elements, that is to say from the common and from the proper (tou te kionou kai idiou), occurs in us the comprehension of truth.” A few things to note:

    1. East/West do not appear to oppose each other here (as personal vs. essential). The quote by Basil says a a lot about the relation of essential (common – divinity) to the personal (proper – paternity, filiation, spiration). The triune God is not apprehended one way vs. the other but by a proper understanding of both. This has been called ‘redoublement’ by Emery where God is viewed under two aspects: what is common (essential) and what is proper (personal). Given these two aspects, neither is reducible to the other and one must speak of God in two ways. Lewis Ayers, in Nicaea and its Legacy, makes much of the same point when he talks about the fundamental shared strategy of irreducible divine unity and the irreducibility of the persons, which he argues operates in the East and West. The point is (on their account) you can’t have person without essence (and vice-versa) or else you are not talking about the triune God.

    2. On the structure of procession-relation-person, the reason that Aquinas’ starts with what is common (essence/divinity) rather than the proper (person) is simply that a ‘person’ can’t be conceived in the abstract because it is integrally linked to the notion of essence. How is that? While redoublement stresses that God must be spoken of in two ways, the two ways do stand in conceptual relation to each other, because they are simply two modes-of-signification for the self-same reality. This is where the communication of essence is theologically indispensible. Because a divine person is a person precisely in possessing the divine essence in a mode distinct from the other persons (by virtue of the communicatio essentiæ: unoriginate Father, generated Son, spirated Spirit), “the concept of a person as a subsisting relation integrates the concept of ‘essence.’” (Emery) Without the communication of essence, there is no such integration. The necessity of such a move is demonstrated clearly by Emery, “One cannot conceive of the person without the substance or without the nature belonging to the very ratio of the divine person, this latter being defined as ‘distinct subsisting in the divine nature (distinctum subsistens in natura divina)’.” A person is not a person in the abstract.

    I hope this all makes some sense, but the basic point is that Aquinas (and I daresay all early Trinitarians in the East and West) insist on the irreducibility of person and essence (neither is collapsible into the other). Secondly, the reason they begin with essence is because of the integral relation between person and essence (not because they like ‘abstract’ thinking over ‘personal’ or something like that). For further reading, I would highly recommend the essay: Gilles Emery, “Essentialism or Personalism in the Treatise on God in Saint Thomas Aquinas,” Thomist 64.4 (2000): 521-563. It’s a brilliant interaction on the question at hand, and gives a strong defense of why the juxtaposition of being essentialist vs. personalist is a false dilemma for Aquinas (Augustine, and the East/West in general). I’d also highly recommend Matthew Levering’s Scripture and Metaphysics (particularly chapter 7 on this question); and for the most thorough English language treatment I’d consult The Trinitarian Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas by Giles Emery.

    I realize there are lots of technical terms flying above and much of that assumes a basic familiarity with trinitarian dogmatic thought (which I have only recently become conversant!). Please don’t hesitate to ask for further clarification, and I’ll do my best to help provide a better explanation.

    • Josh,

      Thanks. Yeah, you’re right in highlighting the essentialist/personalist point (and I’ve found Ayres informing on the point of East vs. West and such).

      But, I don’t think that quote actually provides any kind of denoument to the “dilemma;” in fact in my mind it only illustrates it; as well as your summarizing points.

      You said:

      On the structure of procession-relation-person, the reason that Aquinas’ starts with what is common (essence/divinity) rather than the proper (person) is simply that a ‘person’ can’t be conceived in the abstract because it is integrally linked to the notion of essence.

      This is the point I’m making against “essentialism.” As I understand Aquinas’ substance metaphysics (thus applied, anthropology); the persons in his scheme, and the way you describe it, actually become the ‘accidents’ of the essence (which is the ‘substance’ or ‘essence’ of God). This was what I was talking about when I mentioned a notion of ‘Godness’ prior to persons, from whence they ‘subsist’. This is NOT a biblical or ‘relational’ (personalist or whatever) representation of how God is disclosed in Jesus Christ.

      The ousia (being) is shaped by the hypostasis (persons), and vice versa through a perichorectic onto-relation of interpenetrating love (see Jn 17 for example).

      So we don’t have this hierarchy of 1)God —> 2)Persons of the Godhead —>3)Creation —->4)etc. God is the Persons, and the Persons are God. This is why I will continue to assert that Aquinas’ accounting cannot present us with a viable understanding of the Trinity.

      A good book to read is TF Torrance’s: Christian Doctrine of God

  5. Well said, Josh. I would add that along with the conceptual issues involved in choosing to begin with the divine essence or the divine persons, it’s worth pointing out that, in the progress of redemptive history and the biblical teaching that tracks with it, God apparently saw fit to stress his unity first in the Old Testament before more clearly unfolding his Trinity in the coming of Christ and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the New Testament literature that follows those events. Certainly, there are Old Testament anticipations hinting at the three persons in God, but the accent mark appears to be on the divine unity. Perhaps, then, in the task of systematics it’s only reasonable to follow along with the Bible and begin with God as one. Bavinck and others make this point. It seems to me that someone like Moltmann simply ignores the Old Testament when he emphasizes that anyone who begins with De Deo Uno misses the Bible’s own point of departure in its teaching about God.

  6. Bobby-

    Thanks for your response. Few more thoughts based on your clarification.

    I do think both the ‘substance metaphysics’ view and the ‘relational ontology’ view have similar concerns in some regards. Neither one wants ‘person’ (to use the biblical terms this is pointing toward: Father/Son/Spirit) OR ‘essence’ (again the biblical term here is: God/LORD) to be defined in isolation from the other – yet I think you’ll agree it’s important not to conflate the two either (the Father is not the Son…). For substance metaphysics, this is the whole point of ‘redoublement’ which is ultimately pointing toward the formal concept of divine simplicity (God is triunely simple). I realize that relational ontology also wants to carefully distinguish, yet relate, person and essence, and that someone like Torrance, who you mentioned, does that with onto-relations (while someone like Zizioulas conceives of being-as-communion). I’m willing to grant that all of them are Trinitarian in a sense, but I’m most sympathetic with the classic construction because I think it fists the biblical material best and is most coherent (arguably a judgment call on both counts!). Another reason I’m sympathetic to Augustine/Aquinas is because I just have a fiduciary stance toward the catholic (lower-case ‘c’) tradition. I tend to think they read Scripture well and accounted for the same sets of concerns (albeit in a different way) that occupy modern theology. I also tend to think most critiques of ‘substance metaphysics’ present a bit of a caricature (as many of our critiques do). All that said, even after the best theological presentation, I also know some will still be unsatisfied with the classical account.

    To me, the discussion we are having hinges on the question: What is the best way to think and speak of the persons (three:Father/Son/Spirit) and essence (one:God)? I gave you my understanding of the substance metaphysical account – which is a processional model of God (namely, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and Son). One concern I have with all non-processional models of God is that the biblical terms Father/Son/Spirit become a bit of an abstraction (in what sense Father, Son, Spirit – rather than Person1, Person2, Person3). They don’t point to who God truly is – ad intra. Instead, they point only to how God reveals himself in the creaturely economy – ad extra. This seems inherently voluntaristic to me. Most importantly it raises the significant question of whether Jesus Christ really is the presence of God and the gift of life – which is to say this all arises primarily from soteriological concerns. I’d be curious to hear precisely how your understanding of Torrance’s onto-relations does this in a more satisfying way than Aquinas. I’m somewhat familiar with Torrance’s Christian Doctrine of God (it’s on my desk at least!), but maybe you could point me to what specifically he does that helps us think and speak of the three and the one most effectively. Particularly how do the names Father/Son/Spirit point to *real relations* in God and not collapse the one and the three?

    On to your concerns. Your worry, that Aquinas simply views the person’s as accidents of the substance of God, seems misplaced. If Aquinas was Aristotle redux then you’d be right. But Aquinas shows time and time again he’s willing to take Aristotle, employ him where he’s helpful and correct him where he’s not (Aquinas’ God is not an unmoved mover for example). On Aquinas’ account, the divine Word (the Son) is not an accident, because there are no accidents in God. Everything ‘there is’ within God, is God himself. So Aquinas writes: “in God ‘to be’ and ‘to understand’ are one and the same: hence the Word of God is not an accident in Him, or an effect of His; but belongs to His very nature.” (ST 1.34.2 ad1). In short, Aquinas’ God is triunely simple.

    I’d like to hear more about your second, related, concern, that speaking of what is common to God before what is proper to the persons is “NOT a biblical or ‘relational’ (personalist or whatever) representation of how God is disclosed in Jesus Christ.” I assume we’d agree that Scripture is quite willing to say things about what is common to God (and of course by that I mean common the three persons) – the “I am God Almighty” of the OT for example (Gen 17:11, 35:11, etc) culminating in the covenant name YHWH (Deut. 6:3) [Steve was pointing to something like this via Bavinck]. I agree this is no abstract ‘Godness’, as you put it, but instead it is what is given in the history of salvation between the covenant, thus personal, God and his people. Yet this and many other biblical predications point to what is common in God. Is this not a valid form of theological discourse? While I’d agree Jesus Christ is the central point of God’s revelatory action, trinitarian theology (to repeat what I said above) takes its staring point from what needs to be said about the origin of Jesus Christ in the eternal life of God if his history is indeed the presence of God and the gift of divine life. Thus, you can start with Jesus (the Word incarnate) but you can’t stop with Jesus because the Word who becomes flesh is God (common), yet he is not Father or Spirit (proper). Something more must be said about what is common and what is proper in God.

    As for the charge of a hierarchy… I also don’t think the Thomistic account endorses what you are calling a hierarchy… rather something more like proper distinctions. The first distinction is between the uncreated God and all that is not God, namely creation. Under that first part of the distinction there is another set of distinctions, Father/Son/Spirit, which do exhibit a taxis/order (although hierarchy is likely not the correct term). The overarching concern here is: How do we draw meaningful distinctions between the persons (and not conflate them), in accord with their actual presence in salvation-history? As I said, I think the processional model of Augustine/Aquinas does this well via ‘redoublement.’ On the other hand, I get the idea that the Torrancian account of onto-relations runs the risk of conflating what is common and proper in God.

    Concerning the, perplexing, notion of perichoresis, reflecting on John 14:10 Aquinas writes, “There are three points of consideration as regards the Father and the Son; the essence, the relation, and the origin; and according to each the Son and the Father are in each other.”(ST 1.42.5) Thus, for Aquinas the persons do all dwell within each other precisely because they share the same undivided essence. Since each person actually is the essence, distinguished by relations of origin, each person can be said to perfectly dwell within the others. From another angle (another mode of signification that is, relationally not essentially), the persons dwell within each other because the relations of origin are relations of relative opposition (again ST 1.42.5). Thus, the relational reality of the other persons is actually present in each person (since the person is constituted by a subsisting relation).

    My instinct is that Aquinas is securing much of the same trinitarian ground which you’d like secure. I confess I need to look more carefully at Torrance to understand precisely where the differences lie (particularly the Christian Doctrine of God), but I hope you might also see that Aquinas’ trinitarian theology is really much more tenable than you’ve suggested.

    • Josh,

      Btw, if you have a chance check out this post by a former mentor and prof of mine, Ron Frost; ironically he just posted it. Frost has been a great influence on me, and ironically the points he highlights in his post are consonant with what we are discussing here. Of course, again ironically, he speaks of Augustine in ways that sees a discontinuity between Aug and Aquinas (while your maintaining more of a continuity). I would be curious to see your response to this:


      Anyway, sorry Kyle, this thread might be going another way than you had intended.

      • Bobby, thanks for this. I just glanced at it and see he compares Augustine and Ames (via Ayres rubric). I’m not sure it’s accurate to call Augustine’s Trinity (which I’m somewhat familiar with) relational over and against Ames (which I’m not familiar with at all) essentialist God (defined apophatically and impassibly). Augustine has a lot to say about what is common in God and notions like divine simplicity that are predicated of the essence. I’m interested to read Ayres new book on Augustine that comes out this fall and see how he synthesizes Augustine into his work on Nicaea. It looks like I’ll score a free review copy of it (smiles to himself).

        I didn’t see anything in this link about a discontinuity between Augustine & Aquinas (maybe there is another post on this?), but I’m guessing from what he says about Augustine’s relational Trinity, and from our discussion about Aquinas, the kinds of things he has in mind. I’ll comment below on the questions you raised.

        • Yeah, I’m interested to read Ayres’ new book too. I think I might be able to get a review copy myself — hope so :-).

          I’ll just assure you, Frost believes there is discontinuity between Aug/Aqu.

          What do you think about the point of commonality and “property” being love; this is what I’ve found so appealing contra the Thomist account. And this is why I have a problem with the Thomisitic understanding as it seems to provide us with a notion of God that at first is impersonal and undivided substance.

          Btw, Frost is no Barthian, not even close.

          And for further clarification, I am no Barthian (per se), nor is Torrance. Although I would say that I accept Barth’s general critique of the Orthodox Reformed understanding of election/predestination (following in the Athanasian tradition vs. the Augustinian). And beyond that I would say, contra the Thomist position, I follow the Scotist thesis in re. to a doctrine of God and so forth. And of course this is why I was pressing (a bit) earlier the point of unity as love, as my friend Myk Habets describes the Scotist position:

          The Scotistic thesis on the primacy of Christ essentially comes down to one word — love. The predestination of Christ is a completely gratuitous act of God. The corollary is that the incarnation is not conditioned by any creaturely factor such as sin. This utter independence from a creaturely factor is true in the case of all the elect. Therefore, a fortiori, it must be true of the predestination of Christ who, as head of the elect, was predestined to the greatest glory. The basic reason given by the Scotists for the works of God ad extra is the supreme love of God. Journal Compilation, Blackwell publishing 2008), 347, 349)

          While Barth may fit this thesis at points; this trajectory is certainly, at least historically, distinct from “Barthianism” proper. Anyway this is where I’m coming from (interestingly, even according to Muller, John Calvin himself was Scotist in his doctrine of God — at odds with the post-Reformed reification of Calvin’s thought, at least in England [fodder for another thread]).

          • Bobby-

            I’m currently not convinced ‘love’ is the best way to name what is common in God. I wrote a paper last year critiquing how folks co-opt the Trinity for gender debates and tried to run with the idea of ‘love’ (which I realize is a possible reading of the Johannine material), but it seemed unsatisfactory in the end to me. I think the main reason why was trying to figure out how to conceive of love as the most basic aspect common to God. I tried to run the notion of eternal generation and spiration as ‘acts of perfect love’ where love is a ‘giving of self’ (von Balthasar does something like this), but I found it problematic. Here I tend to agree with Aquinas and think the most basic thing I can predicate of what is common to God is that he ‘is’ (classically this has found support in Ex 3:14, and I know there are critiques of that reading). In short, I am unable to conceive of a God who loves prior (logically) to his being. Further, I think the notion of love I expressed above does run the risk of imposing some lack in the inner-life of God and impinging upon his eternal perfection – as the perfect wholly realized God. Therefore, it seems clearer to me to conceive of the processions eternal movements of sheer delight, “always active, yet always in repose” (to quote Augustine) which constitute the inner life of God. In short, the processions are the way to conceive of the triune ‘life.’ Thinking of the processions as ‘life’ also finds Johannine support as you are well aware (John 1:4; 5:26; 11:25; 14:6; 1 John 5:20…). It seems to me the concept of life can ‘fund’ the concept of love quite well (love as an overflow of God’s abundant life). I’m unconvinced the logic works the other way.

            However, you mentioned Scotus… and I’m relying heavily on a notion of analogy here – that all we predicate of God we do analogically (similarity with ever greater dissimilarity – this applies to what I said above about ‘life’ especially; or what I said, and the point Kyle makes from Oliver, about the processions as ‘motion’ in God). I understand Scotus to say we either think and speak of God univocally or not at all… so maybe this also explains why you might not be experiencing the hesitations I do when predicating notions like ‘love’ as basic to God (and why going Jesus Christ to Trinity seems more straightforward and less in need of the conceptualities I’ve suggested). I don’t really want to go in to a full defense of theological analogy, but suffice to say it is rooted in a conception of the Creator/creation distinction which is never transgressed – rather it is condescended to and accommodated by God (providing knowledge of God which is ectypal, but never archteypal).

            All this is probably fodder for another thread as you said!

  7. Josh,

    Thanks for the lengthy (relative to blogging) response. Since you confessed to needing to read more TF; I’ll confess to needing to read more TA (and what I have read from the Summae has been quite some time ago).

    You said:

    I gave you my understanding of the substance metaphysical account – which is a processional model of God (namely, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and Son).

    Before I go on, with your point here, I’d like to ask a question: how do you know of this eternal procession? As a Thomist, do you see the immanent and economic natures of God as univocal — the latter finding its antecedent in the former?

    I don’t think TFT denies the eternal generation of the Son or Spirit at all (or denies the procession); but instead would suggest that this ‘procession’ is exactly correlate to who God has always and already been in Himself (ad intra) for all eternity. Thus your worry that this collapses God with creation. But like I said, the economic has an antecedent correlate in the immanent or ontological. We then can be said to know this as we read this ‘onto-relating’ off of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. In this sense, as TF is fond of saying, “there is no God behind the back of Jesus.”

    You said:

    Thus, for Aquinas the persons do all dwell within each other precisely because they share the same undivided essence. Since each person actually is the essence, distinguished by relations of origin, each person can be said to perfectly dwell within the others. . . .

    So you’ve asked how someone like Torrance might avoid collapsing the common and proper — and I’ve tried to clarify that — now I would like to ask you how what you’ve said here is able to meaningfully present a Trinitarian accounting? It almost seems like you are, or Thomas is, collapsing the persons into oneness; and that the threeness is only a necessary conclusion because of what Scripture says, but not because of the metaphysics behind what Thomas is saying (an incompatibility between what Thomas is using [Aristotle] and the categories that Scripture is using [Trinitarian]. In other words, I don’t see how this presents a Trinitarianism wherein the persons provide any necessary shape to the ousia of God (only a function-of-relations).

    You’ve also said:

    . . . but instead it is what is given in the history of salvation between the covenant, thus personal, God and his people.

    This seems very via negativaish and even nominalistic, ironically. And this is the point of there being a God behind the back of Jesus. I guess I’m just reiterating my concern that what Thomism presents is a concept of God that presupposes a concept of God (or my “Godness”) or the infinite (simplicity) before we ever meet Him in the face of Jesus Christ. The once we meet Him in Jesus Christ we try to figure out how to make who we meet fit with this preconceived notion of “God.” This is exactly the sense I get from your quote from Thomas on ‘perichoresis’.

    I do thank you for surveying a bit of Aquians’ thought; I’m still not convinced that we aren’t ending up with an artificial version of the Trinity via the categories Thomas is engaging, but I’m still open for further study (I have plenty of that to do on many fronts . . . right now its all about Calvin though :-).

    Thanks, Josh.

  8. The reason we know about the eternal processions (generation and spiration) is because our Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Holy Spirit is God the Spirit. On generation, Aquinas favors John 8:42: “I proceed from God” while Augustine cites John 5:26 “The Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself.” Both trace a coherent line of thought in the history of Scriptural interpretation that holds God’s activity in the world reflects the inner-triune life. In God’s work of creation, redemption, and perfection, the divine processions are echoed in the world – a link which ties the person and work of Christ and the Spirit back into the perfect life of God. The argument is also tied to the theological notion that only God reveals God, only God can save… Thus the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, and the indwelling Spirit that comes forth at Pentecost are the very presence of God, and manifest God as he truly is (eternally begotten Son and eternally proceeding spirit). It’s a move to remove slippage between economic and immanent (while maintaining the distinction). There are other ways to remove the slippage (as Rahner says later with his ‘vice-versa’) but this is the way the classical tradition does things.

    • Hit submit too soon…

      So I imagine TFT does not deny that the immanent Trinity grounds the economic Trinity, just like you said. I sure he’s also right in line with the tradition by denying a deus absconditus (how could he be a good Barthian if he didn’t!). My concerns, generally not with TFT, is that lots of people say: I believe in eternal generation and spiration, but go on to give an account (materially) that does not really do justice to what the tradition meant by those terms. Again, I won’t fault TFT for this, but I need to understand more of what he means by onto-relations… so I’ll withhold judgement on whether person and essence remain irreducible on his construction.

      As for why I think the classical account I’ve given doesn’t collapse persons and essence (proper and common), I think the answer is this: person and essence are two irreducible modes of signification of the self-same reality. If we are speaking essentially, of deity, we talk about the God who is one. If we are speaking relationally, of divine persons, we talk about the three who are each God. Neither is reducible to the other and both must be said to think and speak about the triune God – no conflation. This is the ‘grammar’ that the classical account has used to maintain the one and the three.

      I do wonder if the undividedness of God, when speaking essentially, might be a key difference in my account of the classic tradition and your account of TFT (here I’m drawing on Levering’s discussion). Put simply: Can we treat ‘essence’, relationally, that is under the distinction of persons? For Augustine and Aquinas, essence qua essence, is not relational. The relations, while they subsist in the divine essence, do not derive from it. If they did, they would be related to the divine essence as source. So Augustine also says: “We do not talk about three persons out of the same being, as though what is being were one thing and what person is another.” (The Trinity, Book 7, chapter 3, no. 11). Rather, the relations in God relate only to each other. Levering explains, “The divine being subsists in three distinct modes, but the divine being is not what is related in these distinct modes. The divine being is the same in each Person. What are related are solely the Persons who subsist in the divine being. Paternity is related to filiation, and both are related to procession.” (Levering, 219) So my thought is that this view might be different than how TFT employs onto-relations.

      In the end, I think it sounds like we are both trying to avoid some sort of voluntarism, where the God we know in the economy is disconnected from God’s life in himself.

      Thanks for the dialog and look forward to chatting more down the road.

      • 1)It’s been awhile since I’ve read about TF’s Christian Doctrine of God; don’t have a copy handy (you do ;-), so can’t really refresh at the moment. I think though that what he says is that the ousia is personal, through and through, since it is shaped and defined by the eternal onto-relations which coinhere as they each (hypostasis) act in their distinctive relation to the other out of koinonial love for the other. I don’t see how this would be a collapse of God’s persons into an immaterial nothing. It’s saying that the “essence”, to borrow your language, is stable only insofar as personal love is its ground (an “other-shaped-God” — so Trinitarian).

        2) Your explanation is clear to understand. Which is still why I would maintain that the substance of God (or immanent ad intra) nature of God is not self-same with the persons; since the persons subsist and thus do not necessarily shape or determine the what of God’s being. You reference the “classical” account, but I would want to suggest that there are other accounts (like the Scotist) that ground the grammar differently; and of course there are different interpretations of the Tradition (see TFT’s Ground and Grammar of Theology). I don’t see how you’re avoiding a voluntarism here; except by assertion that these are just self-same realities (which makes it seem artificial to me).

        3) I still don’t see how my initial charge on “subsistence” relative to God’s persons isn’t valid (other than your category of redoublement). Every time you describe the situation this is what I read, a “God behind the back of Jesus.” How do you avoid this?

        I think the view represented by TFT does avoid a voluntarism; because it “starts” with Jesus, and works from there. It does not start with a preconceived concept of God, and then try to fit God to that accounting.

        I also thank you for the discussion. My reading hasn’t been as consistent lately; so sorry about my ability to provide more substance from TFT (or lack), and others.

        • Just a quick follow up here. It’s my suspicion that if you are following Scotus on how our predication of God works – that our predication is univocal or it is meaningless – then I think that is our point of contention. So when I suggest two ways of speaking (redoublement) about the self-same reality it’s rooted in the notion that God is simple, we are not, and that we have to ‘divide’ God (as it where) to speak of him. Thus two ways of speaking is not a conceptual slight of hand, rather it is the creaturely way to speak of a simple God. We just don’t have univocity on my account (Soctus was a bit of a rebel here in my view and not many have followed him).

          On the notion of “classical” I might have spoken hastily here, but like Ayres I tend to see a lot of consensus in the patristic material than some admit (I’m a systematician after all). I think Augustine is right in line with what Ayres identifies as the pro-Nicene consensus, and I think Aquinas develops that line of thought in a fairly consistent way going forward (yes of course there are differences). We probably shouldn’t wrangle over the word “classical”… I’ll stick with pro-Nicene, because Nicaea 325 says the Son is “begotten of the Father before all worlds… begotten, not made, being of one substance (homoousion) with the Father.” I don’t think there is much argument that the fathers clearly define eternal generation (“begotten, not made”) as “being one substance with the Father” (homoousion)… so they were thinking in substance metaphysical terms, with a processional model of God, and generation is specified as a communication of essence. This is what I have been trying to represent.

          Thanks again.

          • Josh,

            Let me just say while I appreciate Scotus, I’m not sure I totally follow him either. This notion of procession is most problematic to me. Who do you have prior to the procession? That is the fundamental problem with the “Tradition” as you lay claim to it (there are other ways to construe the touchstones that Nicaea provided).

            The real problem with what you are describing (promoting) to me, is that it, again, is incompatible with the God of the Bible (who is a relationship through and through). The second you speak of God as a substance before He is a person you’ve lost the gist of scripture’s communication about God.

            You brushed aside my point on essence/accidents, but this was to quick. This clearly represents a Thomistic/Aristotelian anthropology; which logically proceeds from a Thomist doctrine of God (i.e. so the persons of the Godhead correlate to “His” accidents — a subsistence [as you’ve described it]). Your position ultimately, in my view, slips right into an implicit modalism (because God’s ousia is not defined by the eternal generation, but instead by a singular substance wherein the persons are only functions/or modes of expression relative to the defining substance — so there is no reason for the distinctions or properties of the persons except for ad hoc ones).

            The bottom line is, Josh, you need to present a God who is consonant with the one presented in Scripture. It is really odd to me, to construct a notion of god prior to ever meeting Him in Christ; and this is exactly what the Thomist synthesis has done.

            Nicaea is open for interpretation (which is what Ayres illustrates); I don’t think the Thomist interpretation is the best way.

            I do thank you for this discussion, Josh.

            Sola scriptura,


            • Bobby-

              Let me take one last shot and then I’ll be quite, and I hope I say this with the grace and charity that we have together in Christ (I do wish I was sitting at a table with you so you could see me smiling as I speak).

              If I’ve not been not been clear, there is no before or after in God. Processions are eternal, thus relations are eternal, thus persons are eternal. It is because God is simple (read that to mean – not a creature) that we speak of persons and essence separately – he we have to speak of both to speak of the one God who is three persons. The ineffability of the Creator is what necessitates our use of analogy.

              If these sort of distinctions are not accepted as biblical, then I realize the theological conclusions I’ve suggested won’t be satisfactory to you – and not to sound churlish but I’m the only one in our discussion who has cited where the view I commend here, Augustine’s and Thomas’, comes from a particular reading of Scripture. Both men wrote a number of commentaries which further expound their views from Scripture.

              I really do hear your concerns about the danger of constructing a doctrine of God apart from the history of salvation culminating in Christ and the giving of the Spirit, and I’ve read errant theological views which do that and I do not want to fall into that trap myself. However, I just don’t think the Augustinian and Thomistic accounts are prey to that critique. They recognize the presence of the incarnate Son, if he truly is God, says something about the pre-incarnate Son and they turn to Scripture to learn what precisely that might be. In short, a doctrine of the immanent Trinity furnishes the description of the personal agents and the modes of temporal action proper to them. It indicates the force of the drama of the gospel derives from the infinite capacity of these agents – immeasurably more full of life than any temporal reality (to freely paraphrase my thesis advisor). Thus, if the eternal nativity of the Son is lost, then the gospel collapses into mere history (to quote Luther).

              When I see you set ‘Christ’ against ‘a notion of God prior to Christ’ it demonstrates to me the sort of univocal collapse of Christology into Trinity which I’ve tried to avoid. You seem to be taking the Barthian: Jesus Christ *is* the revelation of God (of course he is!) to support that univocal notion: Jesus Christ is the Second person without reserve (and vice versa?). To me, this univocity explains your discomfort with ‘abstract Godness’ (a sort of equivocity), which you assume is the only other option we have if we aren’t talking ‘personally/relationally’ about God on the basis of Jesus Christ. I also take this to be what is behind all your worries about aphophatic/via negativa (equivocal) and your recommendation of a cataphatic/via positiva (univocal) approach. In short, it all seems very binary as I understand your view – equivocal or univocal with no place for analogy. That does follow Duns Scotus as I understand what he said about universals at least. If that’s the case, I can see why Aquinas, and much of the analogical tradition, will never quite satisfy you. So, as I understand it, that is the crux of our difference here.

              Thanks again for indulging me in the discussion, even if I in no way convinced you otherwise, and I’ll keep you in mind for my questions (just saw you had a blog) when I get back to reading Torrance.

              • I meant I’ll be ‘quiet’ :) I guess I should start proof reading after my over exuberant typing before I hit submit.

                • Josh,

                  It’s not that you haven’t been clear, or that I haven’t understood your points; but you’ve brushed aside the most salient point, and that is the idea of essence/accidents. I honestly don’t care, to be frank (but in love of course), if Thomas asserted that these categories don’t apply to God — of course it’s easy to see why he would say this; but this presents a hole in his schema (his logic is inconsistent). I’m displeased with a simple assertion, and that is all Thomas does.

                  Beyond this, what’s really necessary is to demonstrate how substance metaphsyics makes the most sense of the categories of scripture relative to a doctrine of God. You’re certainly right to note my preference for a cataphatic approach — I don’t see what else is scripturally available.

                  Anyway, I thank you again for the discussion; stop by the blog anytime. (Oh don’t worry mispelling, it’s just a blog ;-).

  9. Woops, missed your previous comment before this one. Thank you for describing the “order.” I just think the “Tradition” is appealing to the via negativa vs. positiva, and I would like to avoid the former.

  10. Just a note/question:

    If we translate Basil’s “idiomata” as the “idiomatic” or “idiosyncratic,” though, that changes everything. In that case the “One” or the in-common base or grounds of all, is the truth; while personalities are … idiosyncratic.

  11. “For Plato, in wholly undualistic fashion, motion is the eternal stability of the Forms; it is, for Aristotle, the means of our passage from potency to actuality, it is, for Grosseteste, the means of the propagation of the universe from the simple, eternal light; it is, for Aquinas, the means of our participation in the eternal dynamism of the Trinitarian life of God” Very well said!

  12. In my view, you are comparing apples and pears (Newton and Aquinas), the first motivated by nature, the other by faith… Such historically and faith-centric interpretations are not going to give you any new insights as to what nature might or might not be. The outcome is predictable: circular reasoning that ends one way or another where you’d like to be… not where you might or could have been.

    PS: By chance, Google brought me to your blog… I am writing my next book, The Emzine Story (which does address some of these matters in a more detached manner, that is, detached from religious and even certain scientific preconceptions)

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