A metaphysics of Exodus

At this point it is necessary to dispel a myth which may have been thus far reinforced by my own lax terminology. Thomas's 'simple' God is not, in the first instance at least, a 'God of the philosophers', as I, in a dubiously helpful concession to Pascal, may appear to have been saying. Thomas's God, whose simplicity is ultimately guaranteed by the divine identity of esse and essentia, is, at least so far as he is concerned, the God of 'Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob', that is to say, the God of the Hebrew scriptures. Here, as in other places too, Thomas is providing what Kerr calls a 'metaphysics of Exodus',35 specifically a metaphysics of Exodus 3:14, where, having been asked by Moses for his name, Yahweh replies: 'I am who am. This ... is what you must say to the sons of Israel'. It was, of course, the contention of Etienne Gilson that it is to this scriptural authority that Thomas appeals when he concludes that the proper name of God is ipsum esse subsistens, he who is so utterly simple and one, in whom there is no distinction of esse and essentia, that that name is utterly incommunicable, not capable of being shared with anything else.36 As a grammatically common noun, Thomas adds, the name 'God' is the most appropriate, for it signifies the divine nature which is, of course, shareable, since all creation in one way or another can and does share in the divine nature.37 But if you want a proper name with which to name

34 'Per revelationem gratiae in hac vita non cognoscamus de Deo quid est, et sic ei quasi ignoto coniungamur.' ST 1a q12 a13 ad1.

36 ST 1a q13 a11 corp. See Etienne Gilson, L'Esprit de la philosophie medieval, Paris: de Vrin, 1944.

37 It is important not to be misled here. Grammatically Qui est is a proper name, on all fours therefore logically with 'Peter' and 'Mary'. Hence it is logically absurd to suppose that

God as absolutely 'distinct' - such that the people of Israel can be told of their God, without ambiguity or confusion with any other 'God', which is what Moses was asking for - then this is it, Thomas says: 'I am who am' - ipsum esse subsistens.

It is, of course, disputable and disputed how far Thomas's 'metaphysics of Exodus' can be permitted to stand as an exegesis of Exodus 3:14,38 and in any case Gilson made no claim to there being any sort of Thomist metaphysics in Exodus, only that Thomas's metaphysics of the divine esse corresponds with the God of Exodus.39 Be that as it may, undoubtedly Thomas thought it a defensible interpretation. That being so, it would seem to follow that if we are with any degree of textual and historical sensitivity to assess Thomas's account of what he is doing, methodologically and theologically, in questions 2-25 of the Summa Theologiae, we should see those discussions as an elucidation of the ratio Dei in and through an attempt to develop the implications of what the Hebrew scriptures reveal to us about God - precisely, therefore, as the God revealed to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and to the prophets of Israel. If, therefore, there are problems in Thomas's account concerning the relationship in which that God stands to the trinitarian God of Christian faith, these will not be best understood as problems of how a philosophical 'God of oneness' stands in relation to that 'God of faith', but as problems, if indeed there are any, which will have to be faced in one way or another by any Christian theologian whatever, of the relation between the God revealed to the people of Israel paradigmatically in the great Exodus theophanies, and the God revealed to the people of Israel, and preached to all nations, in Jesus Christ. After all, it is Israel's God, the God of Exodus, whom Christians believe to be incarnate in the human person, Jesus Christ.40 To that extent, at least, Thomas has no problems to face of general theological method which have not to be faced by a Gunton or Barth or any other Christian theologian whatever.

there could be more than one Qui est. That is not to say that we can identify God as the individual named in the same way that we can identify Peter and Mary as the individuals named. Grammatically, 'Deus' is a common noun, on all fours therefore logically with 'man' or 'giraffe', denoting the divine nature. Hence, though undoubtedly false, it is not logically absurd to suppose that there is more than one God. That is not to say that we are able to comprehend the divine nature that the noun denotes, in the way we can tell the difference between a man and a giraffe because of their different natures. On all this, see pp. 172-3 below.

38 For example by Andre-Marie Dubarle, 'La signification du nom de Yahweh', Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques 34, 1951, pp. 3-21.

39 Gilson, Esprit, p. 50. See Kerr, After Thomas, pp. 94ff.

40 I have heard it suggested that Jesus' own self-proclamation, 'Before Abraham ever was, I am' (John 8:58), was a self-consciously explicit appropriation to himself of the Exodus epiphany.

And if Thomas incurs further problems of theological method not incurred by a Gunton, this will be because Thomas thinks that the Exodus theophanies can be thought through in philosophical terms which Gun-ton cannot accept, as if supposing that, in doing so, Thomas were setting up a 'philosophical' God of 'oneness' incapable of reconciliation with the trinitarian God of faith. But, as we have seen, this also seems prima facie untrue. Thomas's God of the Hebrew scriptures is a God utterly beyond comprehension, a God whose name is indeed given to us (Exod. 3:14), but one whose 'face no one may see and live' (Exod. 33:20-23); and the root of that unknowability of God lies in exactly that which licenses us to call God by the name 'I am': to know the name of God is to know in what lies the divine incomprehensibility. And that God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is none other than the God of trinitarian faith, to whom, as Thomas says, we are by grace 'made one, as to something unknown to us'.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment