Person And Analogy

According to Boethius' precise definition of its features, the person signifies 'that which is most perfect (perfectissimum) in all of nature': and thus the name person is eminently applicable to God.i7 Like most other theologians,is Thomas recognizes that the name person is a term which is applied analogously, in diverse modalities, to human beings, to angels, and to God. As with all analogous attribution, one has to be aware of the fact that one is in the presence of a perfection which God possesses in a way unique to him.w This rule for analogous usage is important. It can be applied on the same basis to other suitable words by which we name God: Father, Son, Spirit, Goodness, Wisdom, Love, Life, and so on. We should take a little time to remind ourselves what is going on here.

The analogous attribution of a name to God implies that one distinguishes the perfection under consideration (wisdom, for example), from its mode of existence (the way of being wise). On a linguistic level, therefore, one will find this distinction: (1) the perfection signified by a word; (2) the mode of signification, that is, the manner of signifying this perfection.20 Thomas explains that in our language the mode of signification is connected to the mode by which we understand the perfections in so far as they exist in creatures. Under this second aspect, our words are always tied to the way in which we know creatures, since it was primarily to express our knowledge of created realities that these words were forged. Thus, for instance, there will be two aspects of the name 'wise', which we attribute to human beings and which we also attribute pre-eminently to God. We can look at these two aspects.

(1) The first aspect relates to the perfection signified by this name (the perfection signified by the name 'wisdom'). Under this first aspect, our words can properly be applied to God. When it comes to proper analogies, these words apply to God better than to creatures, in terms of the thing they signify.2i What they signify fits God more genuinely than creatures, because these perfections flow from God to creatures. This is how Thomas explains, for instance, Jesus' remark that 'Only one is good' (Mt. 19.17).22 God is good

17 ST I, q. 29, a. 3. This superlative echoes in the Disputed Questions De potentia, q. 9, a. 3, where Thomas qualifies the person as 'dignissima' three times in a row: the nature of the person is 'the most dignified of all natures', and 'the mode of existence of the person is the most dignified'.

18 See Albert, I Sent. d. 25, a. 2; Bonaventure, I Sent. d. 25, a. 2, q. 2.

19 ST I, q. 29, a. 3; cf. I Sent. d. 25, q. 1, a. 2; De potentia, q. 9, a. 3.

22 ST I, q. 6, a. 2, ad 2; cf. In Matt. 19.17 (no. 1582).

through his essence, whereas creatures receive this quality through their participation in God.

(2) The second aspect touches on the reality's mode of signification, the way in which our words signify the perfection which we can see in God. We conceive and signify wisdom like a quality, the habit which a subject has, and which is not identical to the subject itself, which is acquired or received and can be lost (and so on). Under this second aspect, of the mode of signification, our words are not at all fitting for God. God is wise and good in an entirely different way from the wisdom and goodness of creatures, for he is identical with his own wisdom and goodness, is good through himself; his goodness is simply his substance23

When we recognize that 'God is wise' we do not intend to denote something which would be different from his essence, his power, or his being. The attribution of 'wisdom' to God infinitely overflows the mode of signification of this term: 'what it signifies in God goes beyond the meaning of the name, leaving the signified reality uncomprehended'.24 In this way, analogy obtains an authentic knowledge of God, but one which profoundly respects the incomprehensibility of the divine essence which, in the mode of existence belonging to itself alone, its intimate reality, remains unknown to us. This is the way it is for all the words which we put to service for naming God (the condition of use being that the property belongs to God), even in the most appropriate language that we have at our disposal. This criterion must thus apply also to the word person^5 as also to the names Father, Son, and so on. We touch on the truth when we apply the name person to God, and doing so makes something about God known, even though the divine person's mode of being remains incomprehensible to us, infinitely surpassing what a created person is like.26 Despite what a commonplace prejudice puts abroad, these features of the theory of analogy are not idiosyncratic to Thomas Aquinas or to Catholicism; one also finds them in Reformed writers like Karl Barth whom one would suspect would only mention analogy to take a pot-shot at it.27

24 ST I, q. 13, a. 5: relinquit rem significatam ut incomprehensam.

25 I Sent. d. 25, q. 1, a. 1; De potentia, q. 9, a. 3, ad 1.

26 To apply the definition of person to God should not tempt one to define God (De potentia, q. 9, a. 3, ad 2): God cannot be defined, any more than he can be comprehended (STI, q. 3, a. 5). God is not defined by names like this; but the notion of person, what the definition of this name means, belongs to God.

27 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, pp. 221-227. Barth rejects what he calls analogia entis, but he explains clearly that talking about faith in God is subjected to the rule of analogy: 'If in this fellowship there can be no question of either parity or disparity, there remains only what is generally meant by analogy: similarity, partial correspondence and agreement. . . . the object itself—God's truth in His revelation as the basis of the veracity of our knowledge of God—does not leave us any option but to resort to this concept' (ibid., p. 225).

Thus, one attributes the name person to God because of the eminent perfection which this name signifies, 'not in the same way that one says of a creature that it is a person, but in a supremely excellent way'.28 If one wants to use Boethius' definition correctly, one must bring these refinements of the notion to bear on it:

We can say that God has a reasonable nature if reason is taken to imply, not the process of discursive thought, but an intelligent nature in a general sense. God cannot be called an 'individual' in the sense that this implies matter which is the principle of individuation, but only in the sense of incommunicability. Finally, 'substance' can be applied to God inasmuch as it refers to self-grounded existence.29

Thomas can thus conclude: 'Both the word person and the definition of person given above are applicable to God.'3° For these reasons, the interesting etymologies of the word person are of little use in Trinitarian theology. Like other people in his time, Thomas mentions the theatrical mask which seems to have historical connections with the word person^ But if a name can be attributed to God, it is not because of the way the word was originally used: it is on account of the perfection which the word indicates.32 We could perhaps register the value of the idea of'representation' (the face, that which presents itself, the role: the social and moral dimension of the person).33 St Thomas remarks that a name often comes from a property, action, or effect of the thing which it wants to name. Even so, when it comes to the proper names for God, one has to give priority to the deep perfection to which the name points.34

The second definition of the person came from the 'Masters'. This definition embeds itself in etymology, precisely by evoking the dignity of the person (in the sense in which one calls an important personage a 'dignitary'): 'the person is an hypostasis distinguished by a property pertaining to dignity'.35

28 ST I, q. 29, a. 3. 29 ST I, q. 29, a. 3, ad 4. 3° De potentia, q. 9, a. 3, ad 2.

31 ST I, q. 29, a. 3, arg. 2 and ad 2; De potentia, q. 9, a. 3, arg. 1 and ad 1; etc. Thomas took this theme over from Boethius: see Contra Eutyches and Nestorius, ch. 3.

32 ST I, q. 29, a. 3, ad 2: 'The word person is not suitable for God when its meaning is drawn from its original reference.'

33 As early as Aristotle, the word prosopon designates the part of the human body between the cranium and the neck, that is, the face, the countenance, that which appears in front (Aristotle, Parts of Animals III.1); this meaning of prosopon also appears in the Septuagint. By the end of a striking development, particularly in Cicero, the word persona has acquired a cluster of meanings: the social, moral, legal, active roles which are given to individual humans, acting in a social context: the human being as such. See M. Nedoncelle, 'Prosopon et persona dans l'Antiquité classique', Revue des Sciences Religieuses 22 (1948), 277-299; A. Milano, Persona in teologia: Alle origini del significato di persona nel cristianesimo antico, Rome, 1966, pp. 53-66.

34 ST I, q. 29, a. 3, ad 2; De potentia, q. 9, a. 3, ad 1.

35 ST I, q. 29, a. 3, ad 2: 'Hypostasis proprietate distincta ad dignitatem pertinente.' St Thomas also mentions this definition under a variant which foregrounds the nobility of the person: 'Alia [definitio] datur a magistris sic: persona est hypostasis distincta proprietate ad

The early Franciscan school often used this definition, and it is still the primary one for St Bonaventure.36 St Thomas was quite well aware that God is eminent in dignity or, rather, 'surpasses every dignity'. He does not oppose the Master's definition, but it is only interesting to him as an evocative allusion; it does not have the wealth or precision of that of Boethius.

The third traditional definition comes from Richard of Saint-Victor: a person is 'an incommunicable existence of divine nature'^7 Richard substituted this definition for Boethius', because, in his opinion, Boethius' definition leads one to conceive the divine substance as a person and thus creates a confusion between the common substance and the distinct Three in God. This is why Richard's definition indicates what distinguishes the persons (the principle of 'individuation'), that is, the ex-sistere (indicating directly the origin from another; holding his existence from someone) which is incommunicable (the distinct singularity and irreducible singularity of the person). In addition, Richard replaced the adjective 'reason' with a conditioning quality, 'divine'. The accuracy of Richard's criticisms is debatable, since for Boethius divine substance is not an 'individual substance' in the meaning which his definition of person gives it,38 and the note of incommunicability is expressed by the notion of 'individual'. However that may be, very many theologians united around Richard's objections. In every quarter, even amongst those who retained Boethius' definition, the criticisms attracted great attention. One still finds traces of them in Albert, who judges that 'as Boethius defines it, the person does not fit into God, unless one explains substance in the sense of existence, as Richard puts it'.39 Bonaventure, who was likewise receptive to Boethius' definition, explains that it applies as much to creatures as to God, whereas Richard's applies exclusively to God: the Franciscan master concludes that one can say that Richard's definition uses language 'more appropriately'.40

nobilitatem pertinens' (I Sent. d. 25, q. 1, a. 1, ad 8). St Albert the Great observed that 'The masters got their definition by way of a comparison with social values or civil functions' (Albert, I Sent. d. 25, a. 1 in fine).

36 See Bonaventure, I Sent. d. 23, a. 1, q. 1; d. 25, a. 1, q. 1.

37 Richard of Saint-Victor, De Trinitate, Book IV, ch. 22 (SC 63, pp. 280-283): 'naturae divinae incommunicabilis exsistentia'. This definition has lately given rise to several anachronistic interpretations ofRichard's idea. For the Victorine, the definition is based on the concept of nature and also implies the notion of substance, for 'the word existence signifies substantial being' (Book IV, ch. 23; SC 63, pp. 282-283); cf. N. Den Bok, Communicating the Most High: A Systematic Study of Person and Trinity in the theology of Richard of St. Victor (1 1173), Paris and Turnhout, 1996.

38 Cf. Schlapkohl, Persona, pp. 150-151, 155. 39 Albert, I Sent. d. 25, a. 1.

40 Bonaventure, I Sent. d. 25, a. 1, q. 2, ad 4. Although the Scotist definition of person is not identical to Richard's, Duns Scotus takes over Richard of Saint Victor's definition and his critique of Boethius (see Schlapkohl, Persona, pp. 155-169; F. Wetter, Die Trinitatslehre des Johannes Duns Scotus, Munster, 1967, pp. 272-273).

St Thomas shows himself to have been unimpressed by Richard's objections to Boethius. He notes that Richard wanted to 'correct' Boethius' definition, and that 'some people say Boethius' definition does not define ''person'' in the sense we use when speaking of person in God',41 but he does not accept the points of criticism. He maintains that, 'if one interprets it correctly', Boethius' definition 'is fitting for God'.42 In Boethius' definition, 'individual' designates a singularity which we do not attribute to several subjects; this expresses precisely the incommunicability which Richard so much values.43 It does not follow from this that individual substance is conflated with divine essence: 'in our way of speaking about it, the divine essence is not an individual substance since we attribute it to many persons'.44 Nonetheless, Thomas does not reject Richard's definition. He recognizes that it is a good expression of what it means to be a 'person' in God; but it has only marginal interest for him.45 The reason for this is clear from Bonaventure's observation that Boethius' definition fits both God and creatures, whereas Richard's only applies to God. If one takes Richard's definition as the basis of one's reflection, one will deprive oneself of the power of the analogy: the word 'person' no longer indicates the knot between human and angelic persons and the divine persons, and so one's grasp of the persons in God is very much loosened. Boethius' definition has to its credit that it does not specify what the principle of distinction in a person is. Since it supplies an 'analogical concept', it leaves the word open to the diverse attributions from which Trinitarian theology, angelology, and anthropology can all benefit in their diverse ways.46

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