The problem of idolatry Scotus and Thomas

If Anselm's 'fool', the atheist, is wrong in denying that there is a God, he must at least know what he denies; that is to say, 'God exists' must mean the same to him as it does to the theist. And if God does exist, then the atheist is 'wrong' in the plainest possible sense, in that what he says is straightforwardly false. That, as we have seen, is a straightforward application ofthe Aristotelian principle, eadem est scientia oppositorum. But what are we to say about Scotus' idolater, the person who worships as God some finite, created object: fire, water, or a tree? In what way, precisely, does the idolater get God wrong? Are we to say that the idolater is no better in practice than an atheist, since he worships as if it were God something which is not and could not be God, and so, though nominally a theist, that he fails to acknowledge the existence of the one true God, infinite, Creator of all things visible and invisible, omnipotent, omniscient - which no water, or fire or tree could be? Or, are we to say that he cannot mean by the word 'God' what the true believer means? That the idolater says 'God exists' is neither here nor there on this account, if the idolater does not mean what the true believer means. If that were the case, then it would follow that the true believer and the idolater use the word 'God' equivocally, that is to say, they do not truly disagree, for what the idolater affirms does not have the same meaning as that which the true believer denies. There can be no true oppositio because there is no eadem scientia.

In truth there is some measure of agreement between Scotus and Thomas on how to respond to these questions. Both reject the position that there is an equivocation between the true believer's and the idolater's use of the word 'God', though Thomas is inclined to take the case for saying that they are equivocating more seriously than Scotus does. As Thomas puts it, it could very well seem that the idolater simply does not understand the word 'God' at all if he thinks that a bit of bronze could be the one true God;14 and after all, we might ask how you could think that an idol is the Creator of all things out of nothing. The idolater must be thinking of some other meaning of the word 'God' if his position is to be made intelligible.

But Scotus and Thomas are united in rejecting the understanding of idolatry according to which the idolater simply means something else than 'God' when saying that an idol is God. Moreover, they partially agree on the grounds for rejecting the position. First, Thomas points out, as we have seen Scotus to do, that equivocation does not derive from different subject-terms of predications, otherwise the predicate '... is a man' would be equivocal as predicated of Socrates and Plato; so, just because the Christian and the idolater predicate the name 'God' of diverse individuals, it does not follow that the name is being used equivocally15 -equivocity derives from differences of meaning, not from differences of predication.16 But secondly, there must be some relation of meaning between what the true believer and the idolater assert, because they contradict each other, which they could not do if they were using the word 'God' equivocally. As Thomas says: 'it is clear that the Christian who says that an idol is not God contradicts the pagan who says it is, because both use the name "God" to signify the true God'.17 Beyond these points of agreement between them, however, Thomas and Scotus differ; for Scotus derives from them the conclusion that existence must be predicable not just non-equivocally - which is all Thomas believes the argument shows -but univocally of God and creatures, a conclusion which Thomas explicitly rejects. Let us therefore recall Scotus' argument.

Scotus says that both the true believer and the idolater are certain that God exists, but the idolater says that God is fire, while the true believer denies this, thus contradicting what the idolater says. But on the principle that the meaning of a predicate is univocal only if its affirmation and its negation of the same subject amount to a contradiction, it follows that it must be in the same sense of'... exists' that the idolater and the true believer say that God exists.18 But since the true believer maintains that

14 ST 1a q13 a10, sed contra, praeterea.

15 'nominum multiplicitas non attenditur secundum nominis praedicationem, sed signifi-cationem: hoc enim nomen homo, de quocumque praedicetur, sive vere, sive false, dicitur uno modo' - 'a multiplicity of names [equivocation] results not from the multiplicity of its predications, but from a multiplicity of meanings. For the word "man", whatever it is predicated of, whether truly or falsely, means just one thing.' ST 1aq13a10ad1.

16 Ibid. 17 Ibid.

18 Note that if Cross is right that the contradictoriness condition for univocity is necessary but not sufficient, then this inference fails of validity. Indeed, unless the contradictoriness condition is both necessary and sufficient the whole case for the univocal predication of being as between God and creatures collapses.

God is an infinite being and the idolater that God is a finite being, it follows that there must be a univocal meaning to the predicate '... exists' predicable in common of finite and infinite being.

Thomas's rejection of this argument anticipates Scotus' defence of it by some thirty years. Indeed, if one did not know that Scotus was writing after Thomas, one might very well have supposed that Thomas's discussion of idolatry in the Summa Theologiae was written in explicit response to Scotus' argument in the Ordinatio, so precisely in 'Scotist' terms does Thomas identify the position he is rejecting. Thomas asks: 'Is the name "God" used in the same sense of God, of what shares in divinity and of what is merely supposed to be God?' The question seems odd, but simply means: when we - that is, believing Christians, who possess the truth about God - speak about God, we do so in a certain sense. But Christians also have reason to speak of things other than God as having a divine character; for example, a soul in the state of grace may legitimately be described as in some sense sharing in the divine, and pagans call their idols 'Gods', wrongly supposing them to be so. The question for Thomas, therefore, concerns what the relationship is between the meanings of the word 'God' in these two cases of 'sharing in the divinity' and 'idolatrous supposition' on the one hand, and the meaning the word bears as naming the one true God on the other. So Thomas first sets out the case for the 'Scotist' position that the word 'God' must be used univocally:

It seems that the name 'God' is univocally predicated of God in all cases, whether as of his [true] nature, whether as shared in, or whether in the suppositions [of the pagans]. For

1. where there is diversity of meanings there can be no contradiction between an affirmation and its denial; for where there is equivocation there can be no contradiction. But when the Christian says, 'an idol is not God', he contradicts the pagan who says 'an idol is God'. Therefore, 'God' is predicated in either case in the same sense [univoce].

Now while Thomas concedes to this position ('Scotist' avant la lettre) that the idolater and the true believer cannot be using the name 'God' equivocally, he will allow the argument no power to demonstrate that they are using the name univocally; the argument simply does not prove that conclusion. Thomas explains that if the idolater did not mean to affirm of fire or stone or a tree that it is 'the one true God, almighty and worthy to be venerated above all else',19 then what the idolater says would in fact be true. For in the case that the idolater meant by 'God' something other and less than the one true God - for example, that the meaning of'God' is 'finite being' - then it would be perfectly legitimate to say that fire is

19 ST 1aq13 a10.

God; after all, the Bible, as Thomas points out, speaks of the 'gods' of the Gentiles, saying of them that they are in fact 'demons' (Ps. 95:51). Hence, if the idolater is to be said to be 'wrong about God' it must be because the idolater wrongly claims to be true of fire, or water, or a tree what the true believer claims to be true of the Creator of the universe, one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This, then, is why Thomas agrees thus far with Scotus; it cannot be the case that the true believer and the idolater have an entirely different meaning for the word 'God', or else there would be no contradiction between them. The disagreement between the idolater and the true believer concerns what the name 'God' could possibly be true of, the true believer maintaining that it could not be true of fire or water or of a tree that it is 'the one, true God'.

The difference between Thomas and Scotus, however, emerges from consideration of the answers Scotus and Thomas give to the question: if the idolater is in some way 'wrong' about God, in what way is he wrong? For Scotus, the idolater is 'wrong' because, knowing what the word God means, he misattributes it to something which could not in any way be God in the true sense; for there is no sense at all in which something other than God can be said to be 'divine'. For Scotus, then, the idolater is wrong in the way the atheist is wrong, in that what he says is simply false. For Thomas, however, there is a genuine, if only derived and secondary, sense in which what the idolater calls 'God' is truly divine. Therefore, Thomas says, as between what the idolater and the true believer affirm there is neither equivocity, nor univocity, but some analogy.

In later discussion20 we shall attempt greater precision about what Thomas means by an 'analogical' predication, and in this article Thomas gives but a broad and general account: a word is used analogically, he says, when 'its meaning in one sense is explained by reference to its meaning in another sense', explaining that, for example, we understand a healthy diet by reference to health in the body, of which health a healthy diet is the cause.21 Now since the idolater would not be making a mistake in supposing a bronze statue to be God if he did not do so in some sense related to that in which the true believer uses the word 'God', it follows that the idolater is, as it were, playing the same game as the true believer, for he abides by the same rules for the meaning of the word 'God'. Hence, if the idolater makes a theological mistake, he is still, we might say, 'doing theology' even if he is playing on the losing team - unlike the atheist, for whom there is no theology to do, and who will not play the game at all. If the idolater 'gets God wrong' he does so not in the way in which the plain atheist does, who, understanding exactly what the theist understands by

'God', denies God's existence. Rather, Thomas says, the idolater's mistake is to suppose that that which does, genuinely, share in the divine nature - the bronze statue - is the divine being itself, and this mistake is like supposing that a diet is healthy in the same way in which a body is healthy - which, of course, it is not, for you cannot take a diet's blood pressure. Thus, the true believer knows how to say that the bronze statue is divine - by analogical extension from the true God - whereas the idolater does not.22

One further difference between Thomas and Scotus emerges from this, a difference which we shall have occasion to revisit later in this essay.23 If Thomas believes that the true believer and the idolater contradict each other (as Scotus does), but unlike Scotus maintains that the senses in which they use the name 'God' are related analogically, not univocally, this is because Thomas does not accept Scotus' definition of univocity in the first place. For Scotus maintained that a term is predicated univo-cally only if its affirmation and negation of the same subject amount to a contradiction. But Thomas maintains that the affirmation and denial that a bronze statue is God amount to a contradiction between predicates which are predicated in an analogical relation with each other. This, as we shall see, Scotus does not allow. Moreover, we shall see that Thomas's opinion on this matter turns out to have important consequences for how he construes the legitimacy of arguments for the existence of God, his view on the logic of which being crucially different from that of Scotus. But it is to Scotus' views on that matter of logic that we must next turn.

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