The Word

Having already entered the frame in connection with person and essence, Gilbert of Porrée's name comes up yet again in connection with a linguistic problem which is proximate to the foregoing issue. Gilbert had pinpointed the fact that in our way of speaking about the Trinity, the name God is attributed ('predicated') substantially, that is, as to the essence (ousia), whereas the name Trinity is not substantially attributed to God.103 On the one hand, the masters criticized Gilbert for having denied that 'God is Trinity/04 On the other hand, the debate had a bearing on the meaning of the word God: is this an 'essential name', properly signifying the divine essence and thus not designating the person except when a personal name is connected to it (for instance, 'God the Father')?i05

101 ST I, q. 39, a. 2. 102 ST I, q. 39, a. 1, ad 2.

103 Gilbert de la Porree, In Boet. de Trin. II.2 (ed. N. M. Haring, The Commentaries on

Boethius by Gilbert of Poitiers Toronto, 1966, pp. 175-180).

104 See the comments in Alexander of Hales' Summa (Book I, ed. Quaracchi, vol. 1, no. 365). Such a judgement is not, however, fair to Gilbert.

105 Summa Fratris Alexandri, Book I, Prologue of no. 358 (ed. Quaracchi, vol. 1, p. 535 and n. 1). Thomas' conception of the problem in the Summa and the way he solves it is close to that of the 'Hales' Summa. See also William of Auxerre, Summa aurea, Book I, tract. 4, chs. 3-7 (ed. Ribaillier, vol. 1, pp. 43-61).

Thomas rejected the notion of reducing the word God to an essentialist meaning. God is a 'thick' name. Properly speaking, according to Thomas, the word means 'the divine essence in he who has it', or 'the divine essence in as much as it is in that which possesses it', not in an abstract way but in the style of substantive concrete names: it is thus that the word man, for example, refers to a human nature in a concrete individual; that is to say, a human-natured individual. Using an analytic process which was commonplace in his time, St Thomas distinguishes, on the one hand, what a word means, and, on the other hand, the 'supposition' (suppositio, supponere) of this word. This procedure is too important to Thomas for us to run over it lightly.

On the one hand, a word conveys a conceptual content: this is what it formally signifies. On the other hand, in our speaking, a word is often used as a 'place holder' for a reality or to 'represent' it. When we say for instance, 'these men have their freedom taken from them', the word men in this proposition, 'substitutes for', 'represents', 'stands in for', or 'refers to' the persons who are taken captive. The 'supposition' is linked to the signification, since it is because of what it signifies that a word can have such a reference within our speech.106 And, not just through an accommodation to our language use but through its own proper weight, the name God has a good fit for standing in for a distinct divine person (the Father is 'God who begets the Son'), or for designating many divine persons ('God born of God', 'God who breathes the Holy Spirit') or even for representing the divine essence.i°7 Commenting on the first verse of John's Gospel (the Word was with God), Thomas explains that,

The name God signifies the divinity, but in a supposit and in a concrete way, whereas the name deity signifies divinity in an absolute and abstract way. From this it follows that, through its natural capacity and mode of signifying, the word deity cannot stand in for person; it can only be a place holder for the nature. But, from its own mode of signifying, the word God can naturally stand in for the person, just like the word man takes the place of a human natured supposit . . . Thus, when it is said here that the Word was with God, the word God must necessarily be standing in for the person of the Father, since the preposition with signiWes a distinction from the Word which is said to be with God.i°8

When, in the same verse of the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel, St Thomas reads the Word was God (or: God was the Word), he explains that in this instance the word God refers to the person of the Word, not the person of the i°6 See E. Sweeney, 'Supposition, Signification and Universals: Metaphysical and Linguistic Complexity in Aquinas', FZPT 42 (1995), 267-290. The theories of supposition are complex; for an introductory survey and the bibliographical details, see A. de Libera, 'Suppositio', in Dictionnaire du Moyen Age, ed. C. Gauvard, A. de Libera and M. Zink, Paris, 2002, pp. 1358-1360.

i°7 ST I, q. 39; I Sent. d. 4, q. 1, a. 2. i°s In loan. 1.1 (no. 44).

Father, because the word God can stand in for the three persons together, or for one of them.i°9 It is also by means of the 'supposition' of the word God that he presents the confession of faith that the Son is 'God born of God',n° and other New Testament passages which apply the name God to the person of Christ: John 20.28 (My Lord and my God), Romans 9.5 (the Christ... who is over all, God blessed for ever), or Titus 2.13 (the glory of our great God and saviour, Jesus Christ), and so on.m For the same reason, and in its own proper sense, the name God can designate many persons: 'God is three persons', 'God is Trinity'.ii2 This pliable and yet precise analysis of the word God expresses the novel character of the Christian faith put forward by the Council of Nicaea. In this connection, restricting the word God within the language of faith to the person of the Father alone is indubitably a retrograde step and a diminishment, not an improvement.n3

Some other questions deserve a mention at this point. This is especially the case for the Trinitarian 'appropriations', because of the difficulties which they raise today; when we are much further down the line, we can give a whole chapter to it.ii4 In the Summa, Thomas exhibits the appropriations in the context of the problems which we have just discussed. Appropriation effectively presents a similar linguistic fact: it comes about when an essential attribute is connected to a person with which this attribute has a special affinity; an attribute such as power which is common to the divine essence of the three persons is 'appropriated' to the person of the Father who is Principle without Principle. The process of appropriation belongs to the rules which devolve from faith in three consubstantial divine persons.

In all of these instances, the synthesis which renders the plurality of the persons rests on the two aspects of the mystery of God (unity of essence and personal distinction) which the theologian constantly brings together, without conflating the divine reality with the language through which we refer to it. These two aspects are neither superimposed one on top of the other nor juxtaposed alongside each other, but are united and integrated in the theory of the person as subsistent relation. It is by means of this theory that St Thomas discloses the unseparated plurality and unconfused unity of the Trinity.

i°9 In loan. 1.1 (nos. 53-59), cf. In loan. 14.1 (no. 1851).

ii° I Sent. d. 4, q. 1, a. 2: 'God has begot God'; cf. sed contra, 'God begotten by God' (this is the formula of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed).

112 ST I, q. 39, a. 6; I Sent. d. 4, q. 2, a. 2, ad 5.

113 This formula is put forward today by various authors: see for instance B. Studer, 'Credo in unum Deum Patrem omnipotentem', Connaissance des Peres de l'Eglise 73 (1999), 2-17. Karl Rahner's fundamental investigation played a decisive part in this development: 'Theos in the New Testament', in Theological Investigations, vol. 1, trans. C. Ernst, New York, 1982, pp. 79-148.

114 See below, Chapter 13.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment