The Trinity: The Mystery of the One God (White)

White, Thomas Joseph. The Trinity: On the Nature and Mystery of the One God. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2021.

This is the best book ever written on the Trinity.  Not only is it intellectually superior to everything else, it illustrates how doctrines like divine simplicity increase our adoration. As parts of this review can get quite technical, I will place the key points below and the reader can work through the rest accordingly.

1. immaterial processions in the Godhead form the basis for the economic missions.
2. the internal procession of the Son from the Father does not logically demand a separation of essence.
3. Eternal generation is a relation of origin.
4. persons are subsistent modes of being and relate to each other by way of origin.
5. Relation lets one affirm a distinction of persons without threatening the essence.

Like most accounts of the Trinity, White begins with the revelation of the one God in Israel. God established his identity in sacred history.  We encounter a problem, however, as we examine how his covenant people reflected upon him.  Some terms for God are metaphorical and some analogical.  How do we tell the difference?

White notes five philosophical moments in Israel’s history (prior to the New Testament).  We cannot play off metaphysical speculation against divine revelation.  Divine revelation will not allow it.

  1. A form of Wisdom literature developed in Israel’s history.
  2. Isaiah’s use of ontological categories for the divine name: Isaiah 45:14-25 can be seen as a reflection upon Exodus 3:14.
  3. The LXX gave these passages a distinct metaphysical reading.
  4. Sirach and Wisdom, while not Scripture for Protestants, develop ideas of the afterlife and the soul’s immortality.
  5. 2nd Temple Judaism spoke clearly of protology and eschatology.

To be sure, the above does not prove the Trinity, but we see anticipations.  God creates all things in his Wisdom.  Is this wisdom analogical or metaphorical?  If it is analogical, then it can be seen as a generation of a personal agent.  There is evidence that it is.  God’s Word is active in creation and prophecy; He is the principal of God’s action.

The rest of the first part follows the standard accounts of biblical evidence for the Trinity.  For the sake of space, we will move to the Nicene and post-Nicene developments. The key idea for Trinitarian reflection is that the immaterial processions in the Godhead form the basis for the economic, if we even want to use that word, missions (129).

With Athanasius we see an important development in the concept of eternal generation: it is analogous to the intellect.  For example, substance is not multiplied in the case of a thought from the mind.  So it is with the Trinity: the internal procession of the Son from the Father does not logically demand a separation of essence.

Eternal generation is a relation of origin.  The Cappadocian Fathers clarify this language. Gregory of Nazianzus says that terms like “Father” or “Son” designate a relationship, not an essence or activity (Gregory, Oration 29, quoted in White, 144). There is a connection between the difference of mutual relations and the difference of names (Oration 31).

So then, how do persons relate to the divine essence? The Cappadocians give us another phrase: persons are subsistent modes of being and relate to each other by way of origin (White 146). That is the most important sentence in the book.  To the degree one is heretical or orthodoxy depends on whether one affirms that statement.

From personal relations of origin we now discuss personal or hypostatic characteristics: ingenerateness (or unbegotten), generation, and procession.  You identify the persons of the Trinity by their relations of origin and the terms (above) that flow from them.

The main focus of the book, not surprisingly, is Thomas Aquinas.  White begins this section by covering the standard arguments for the existence of God, but the main point for him, as it was for Thomas, was how they function in metaphysics.  We reason quia, not propter quid; from effect, not from cause.  We cannot reason quia because we do not know the essence of God.

Thomas then explains how we can name God analogically. Negative theology is not simply some New Age denying of everything in God, leaving us only with some vague essence to worship. Rather, we understand that God’s perfections are negative perfections.  As White notes, every negation is a mental act upon the prior admission of something existent (221).  We are denying the finite mode of our understanding of an attribute, not the attribute itself.  This is the difference between the modus significandi, the term analogically applied, and the res ipsa significata, the reality signified.

Divine Simplicity

If we are going to deny composition in God, we need to embrace the other metaphysical issues which this entails. God is not dependent on anything else.  So far, so good.  He is Pure Act. Potentiality is a source of imperfection. God cannot have any potency in him.  An actuation of potency implies a transformation.  With this in mind, we can explore his attributes

Divine perfection: Matter is a source of potentiality and indeterminateness (261).  This makes sense if you think about it.  Matter needs shape.  Matter by itself is potency.  It needs something to form it. This, among other reasons, is why God cannot be material.  This is why God is perfect.

Immutability: As God is infinite, he cannot acquire any new perfections.

Unity: a property of being (316).  It is the absence of division.  It follows from simplicity and perfection.

Prologue to a Thomistic Trinitarianism

There were three medieval Trinitarian models: the Franciscan or emanationist, the relationalist, and the nominalist.  The Franciscans, so reads White’s analysis, began with the Father as principle and then moved to the begetting of the Son.  The Father exists eternally in himself.  The problem is this is a very close resemblance to a human person.

The relationalist model is the Thomist one. Relation lets one affirm a distinction of persons without threatening the essence (386).  To wit, the Father is always “relative” to the Son by eternal generation.  Moreover, God’s simplicity demands these relations be subsistent.

Hearkening back to the Cappadocian model, Thomas notes the processions in God are immanent to him. They are relations of origin. They are correlative terms that are opposite to one another. It makes sense how this works with Father and Son.  It is not immediately clear how the Spirit can be “opposite” to two terms. Thomas uses the analogy of the human mind.  The Son as intellect or Logos moves from the Father. The Son loves the Father (and the Father, the Son). The intellect precedes love.  The love is the movement back. This is how the Father and Son spirate the Spirit (421).

From here White gives an excellent defense of the Filioque:

1) The Father emanates the Spirit as Father of the Son.  The Son is “always already” there.

2) We can only know the persons by relations of origin.

3) The Son’s relation of origin is “from the Father.”

4) If the Spirit’s relation of origin is only from the Father, then he is identical to the Son.

5) Ergo, the Spirit proceeds from the Son.

This is the best book written on the Trinity.  White also deals with modern Trinitarianism (Barth, Rahner, Bulgakov, Pannenberg). The modern Trinitarian movement reduces ontology to history and plays Hegel and Kant against one another (while using both).  That is why we should look to the classical model.

Introduction to Philosophy (Geisler and Feinberg)

This is a systematic philosophy text.  Like a systematic theology, it explains and evaluates the loci of philosophy.  It is probably the best intro text on the market, at least from a Christian perspective.

A good philosophical system will achieve three things: (1) internal consistency, (2) external comprehensiveness, and (3) correspondence (Geisler and Feinberg, 72).

The authors do a fine job rebutting the pietistic charge that studying philosophy violates Colossians 2:8.  For one, Paul is warning against false knowledge, not all knowledge.  Moreover, the definite article could actually indicate a specific teaching at Colosse (i.e., most likely gnostic angel-worship).  Even more, one cannot beware of false philosophy unless he is first aware of it (73).  And though Geisler does not mention it, these same pietists themselves give a logos about theos and have no problem with using Aristotelian concepts like being, quality, quantity, and motion.

The first locus the authors cover is knowledge and the various options with justifying belief.  My only concern is that I wish they had spent more time on foundationalism.

What is Knowledge?

Problems with skepticism:

1) Skepticism is rationally inconsistent.  Assertions that we cannot know anything are themselves claims of knowledge (94ff).

2) Skepticism is practically inconsistent: skeptics trust their sense perceptions when they cross the road.


Foundationalism is the view that there is a structure of knowledge “whose foundations, though they support all the rest, are themselves in need of no support” (152). We have directly justified beliefs “and they are topped with indirectly justified beliefs.”

In response to criticisms, the foundationalist maintains his position does not end in an infinite regress. It is possible that there are immediately grounded propositions.


Coherentism is one alternative to foundationalism.  Geisler notes a distinction between coherentist theories of truth and coherentist justification for truth (161). The coherentist justification asserts that there are no basic beliefs, only webs of belief. 

What is Reality?

Is reality One or Many?  Geisler does a fine job explaining the power of Parmenides’ argument for monism (168). It looks like this:

1) Reality is either one or many.

2) If reality is many, then then many things must differ from each other.

3) But there are only two ways things can differ: either by being (something) or by non-being (nothing).

4) However, two (or more) things cannot differ by nothing, for to differ by nothing means not to differ at all.

5) Neither can things differ by being (or something), because being is the only thing that everything has in common, and things cannot differ in the very respect in which they are all the same.

6) Therefore, things cannot differ at all; everything is one.

It’s clear that the problem is his univocal use of the term “being.”  The solution can’t be an equivocal use of the word “being,” for then our knowledge of reality is now suspect.  The only solution, and one Aristotle and Aquinas would later formulate, is an analogical use of being.

The pluralist options are as follows:

Atomism: “Things Differ by Absolute Non-Being” (170ff).

Platonism: Things differ by relative non-being

Aristotle: Things Differ in their Being (Which is Simple)

Aquinas: Things Differ in their Being (which is composed of Form and Matter)

Trinity, One, and Many

Can the Trinity solve the problem of the One and Many?  Short answer: No. The Trinity does not address Parmenides’ concern.  Parmenides wants to know how things can differ in their being.  The Trinity, however, only seeks to posit plurality in the persons, precisely not in the being.

God and the Ultimate

We must not confuse “belief in” with “belief that” (269). I do not need a reason for faith in God.  It is entirely legitimate, though, to stress reasons for belief that God exist.

Some Thoughts on Deism

The Deists’ line that miracles are a violation of natural law no longer works.  Science today is as likely to speak of “models” and “maps” than laws (277).  Moreover, natural physical law does not actually “cause” anything.  It merely explains it.

Problems with Panentheism and Finite Godism

Panentheism cannot claim an infinite god with “finite poles.” It does not make sense to speak of a contingent and necessary God.  Even more problematic, “can God actualize his own potential?” This problem is even more damaging for finite godism.  As Geisler notes, “A finite god needs a cause.”  That new cause is now God (or at least has a better claim to be God).

Paul Tillich’s Symbolic Language

It does not do to say that God is the ground of ultimate Being and that language about God is symbolic. Such a person believes there is at least non-symbolic entity, being.

Analogical God-Talk

1) There is only a basis for “analogy when there is an intrinsic causal relation” (314). For example, as Geisler notes, hot water has an extrinsic relation to the hardness in the boiled egg, but it has an intrinsic relation to the heat in the egg.

2) The effect does not need to resemble the instrumental cause, only the principal efficient cause (315).

3) Likewise, the effect need not resemble the material cause, only the efficient one.

4) Terms like “being” are univocally defined, but analogically applied (317).

What is Good or Right?

Kantianism: will it to be a universalizable law.  Existentialists have asked why should we prioritize the universal over the particular?

Utilitarianism: greatest good for the greatest number.  There are numerous problems with this claim. Only God can be utilitarian, since only he has the foresight to know which actions will be the best for the greatest number (393).  There is another problem: the utilitarian subtly analyzes results in terms of ‘the Good,” which means results cannot be the deciding factor.  Perhaps the greatest practical problem: how long-range must the results be in order for them to be good?  If it is only short-range, then this justifies a number of evils.  Too long a range, on the other hand, makes it worthless.

Classical theistic ethics: the Good is self-evident. The main difficulty with the classical view is whether it can overcome the “is-ought” fallacy. There are several lines of response.  “If ‘ought’ is a basic category that cannot be reduced to ‘is’ or anything else, then one must understand it intuitionally, since there is no way to break it down further” (383). We still haven’t justified natural law ethics.  We have, however, provided a source about what we believe.  We should point out, though, that concepts like “The Good” cannot be analyzed in terms of a higher concept.


This book was a joy to read.  Geisler provided us with an accessible, yet rigorous text for the introductory to mid-level college student.  

Christianity and Idealism (Van Til)

Van Til, Cornelius. Christianity and Idealism. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1955.

Originally a collection of articles, this is actually a fascinating account of the final days of Anglo-American Hegelianism. When Van Til (and by extension, his interlocutors) say “idealism,” they do not mean it like Berkeley and others did, where the world is a product of the human mind. Not even Hegel meant that. Rather, for this kind of idealism, the Absolute is that which is either beyond all particulars or contains all particulars.

A note on terminology: a key concept for idealism is the concrete universal. If for Plato universals existed in some unattainable heaven, and where for Aristotle universals exist in the particular, for the later Idealists the universal contains the particulars.

For men like FH Bradley, reality is beyond the appearances. Reality is unreal to the degree that it is not comprehensible. This calls to mind the old Hegelian dictum: the real is the rational and the rational is the real.

Bernard Bonsanqet makes a similar argument: pluralism destroys knowledge (Van Til, 19). Unity must be basic to difference. I think this is correct and Van Til himself acknowledges its proximity to theism. Without a unity, everything is in flux. This means that the universe must be timeless. Now we are getting into dangerous waters. We are only a short step away from denying the passage of time altogether, as McTaggart later did.

As good as this sounds, Van Til highlights its weakness. It makes God and man correlative of one another. Being and nothing are correlative. All ends up as becoming. Yes, it’s pantheism. Another consequence is that there is no doctrine of creation, since particularity has always been there.

Van Til says the ontological Trinity is the true concrete universal. I think there is something to that. There is unity and particularity in the Trinity, but it does not function the same way as earlier Idealist models did. The unity for the Idealists served to ground the particulars. The difficulty here is that the particulars in the Trinity (i.e., the persons) are not functioning in the same way as idealist particulars are. Of course, Van Til never makes these claims, but it is an idea I have had for years when I read Van Tillians on the ontological trinity.

The book is worth getting to see how Van Til reacted to the last of the British Hegelians.

John Wyclif, Scriptural Logic, and the Parameters of Orthodoxy

Levy, Ian Christopher.  John Wyclif: Scriptural Logic, Real Presence, and the Parameters of Orthodoxy. Marquette University Press, 2003.

John Wyclif is best known for his Bible translation, but what is often overlooked is the strong metaphysical realism that undergirds his view of the Bible and will determine what conclusions he draws about the Eucharist.

Medieval Philosophical Background

In his response to the Neo-Pelagians Wyclif places himself in the conservative wing of the medieval church.  Most important is the distinction between potentia Dei absoluta and potentia Dei ordinata.  While it was never intended to speculate on what outrageous things God could or couldn’t do, it led in that direction.

The Metaphysics of John Wyclif

Wyclif was a strong realist.

Grosseteste: all knowledge found in the divine intellect (Levy 49-50).

Wyclif’s three-fold scheme:

1. Universal of causation (God). universale ante rem

2. Universal of communication (human nature; angelic, etc). They are communicated to a number of subjects. Universale in re

3. Universal of representation.  They represent real universals. Universale post rem.

Wyclif’s Theological Realism

God knows his creation primarily through universals and secondarily through individuals. God knows the creature’s essence even when it doesn’t yet have existence. We distinguish between the creature’s essence and the means by which it subsists through the divine exemplar (55).

Christ the Word is the principal of all creation.

Predication: all words of predication are grounded in the Word (57).  “All things are created in their effects from an eternal intellectual knowledge.”  To lose universals is to get lost in theories of signs (per Occam).  Levy doesn’t mention it, but that is the entire project of Derrida.

There is an immediate payoff in his eucharistic theology. No particle of the universe can be annihilated.  This means that the essence of bread can’t be destroyed as the Mass would require.

Medieval Eucharistic Theology

Ratramnus: relationship between truth and figure. Christ’s resurrected body is impassible and can’t be crunched on and decayed as in the Mass.

Berengar vs Lanfrac

The Confession of 1059.  Even though Berengar lost the debate, his “Confession” created more problems.  If the elements do not remain, then there is no subject to which the predicate (corpus meum) applies (139).

The elements undergo a conversion in dignity but not in substance.


The conversion is one of transition, not union.  A substance isn’t being added to another substance.

Thomas Aquinas

The Early Wyclif

Wyclif accepted transubstantial language early in his career. At the heart of his concern, though, was the intention of the Divine Author (217).  Doubts plagued him, though.  If the elements “disappear” or are annihilated, would this not call the integrity of God’s creation into question?

The annihilation of a substance requires the annihilation of its eternal form.  This part is tricky.  He isn’t saying that when a thing is temporally destroyed (a person’s dying; food eaten, etc) that its eternal form is also threatened.  What realist metaphysics demands is that the eternal Idea causes the form’s exemplar.  The eternal idea of x is found in the mind of God.  There is a correlation between its existence and the existence of the Idea.  Wyclif is saying that if the ectype of the bread ceases to exist, then the eternal idea of the bread no longer exists.  This needs some work.

Think of it this way.  Imagine that there is a string between the eternal exemplar in God’s mind (x) and its instantiation in the world (y).  Imagine that both are “attached” to their respective places (e.g., God’s mind and the world).  Wyclif’s argument seems to be that if you rip out y and throw it away, you rip out x as well, leaving holes in God’s mind.

Perhaps.  The argument is open to several rebuttals, namely that there might be an exemplar without its instantiation.

Wyclif’s Negative Argument

In the phrase “Hoc est corpus meum,” Wyclif argues that “Hoc” refers to a figural presence (though he does allow for some sort of bodily presence later on).  “If the pronoun demonstrates what is already Christ’s body, then nothing new is constituted; and if the pronoun connotes the body of Christ as that which is under the accidents without functioning as their subject, then that is just contrary to Scripture” (246).

Wyclif’s other main argument is that accidents can’t subsist without a subject.  If this holds, then it strikes at the heart of transubstantiation.


Levy does a fine job surveying the Latin sources.  Each page is about ⅔ English with ⅓ Latin text at the bottom.

Sacramental Preaching (Boersma)

It is tempting among some evangelicals today to call everything “sacramental” (not unlike the recent phrase to use “kingdom” or “gospel” as an adjective modifying every single noun). As such, I wish the book had another title. In any case, a sacramentum points to and reveals the res. Thus, sacramental preaching will see Christ unfold in the Old Testament. It’s neither crude allegory nor typology.

I’ve criticized Boersma’s approach in the past. My problem is he uses “sacrament” as a term to cover everything, especially relating to hermeneutics. If he would simply use another term, maybe one such as “participatory” or even typological, then much confusion could be avoided. This book is closer to typology than to allegory, and as such it has a fair bit to commend it.

Each chapter contains a short sermon he preached to his students at Regent College. Each sermon is followed by technical “preacher’s notes.” The notes are where the real money is at.

The book is structured around blessedness:
1) Sensed Happiness
2) Pilgrim Happiness
3) Heavenly Happiness
4) Unveiled Happiness

Boersma suggests that patristic and medieval exegesis is 3-D, whereas modernity is 1-D. In a participatory metaphysics, there is always “moreness.” Modernity is characterized by lessness. (Postmodernism is characterized by nothingness). A sacramental reading simply means the text points to Christ.

Me: That’s fine, but I wish he would have actually defined “participation.” Platonists are sometimes notoriously vague on that point. On a similar note, instead of “sacramental” I am going to say “participatory.”

A participatory metaphysics points to (or makes present) realities beyond that of the physical. One neat benefit of participatory preaching is that it bridges the gap between exegesis and application, since we are “in Christ” and Christ is “in the Old Testament,” so in a significant way we have a link with the realities of the Old Testament. And as we open the text and find Christ, we find all the gifts he brings to us.

Boersma’s collection of sermons has an anagogical structure. In each sermon we successively ascend the mountain until we are face to face with Christ in the beatific vision. This, quite simply, is happiness. It is blessedness.

Song of Solomon, Motherhood, and Virginity

The tradition justified an allegorical reading on the grounds that it was so easy and “fitting” to find Christ in it. Secondly, as Boersma notes, a realist epistemology held that “objects of sensed experience lie anchored in the reality of the eternal, heavenly Word of God.”

So far, so good. Boersma’s next move is rather shocking for Protestants, though one should have seen it coming. If you feel that you can do an allegorical reading of the Song of Solomon, then there is no logical reason why you can’t see the Virgin Mary in it. Make of that what you will. Boersma takes this key point to highlight “virginity” and “motherhood” within the history of salvation. Gregory of Nyssa noted that life and death are connected. Motherhood implies grief. Virginity attempts an end-run around that cycle.

Nota Bene:

“How people interpret the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, says a great deal about how they understand the nature-grace relationship.”

The section on Nathaniel being a true Israelite is good. The backdrop is Jacob’s ladder. Jacob, however, was full of guile. Nathaniel is now face to face with the real Ladder, and there is no guile in Nathaniel.

There is a fascinating chapter on Ezekiel 1. Boersma makes the argument, which I can’t develop here, that the heavens opening means God is ready for battle. The wheel within a wheel is a war chariot of the heavens. Where else did the heavens open with angels? The nativity. Also, Boersma reminds us of Fra Angelico’s “The Mystic Wheel.” The wheel within the wheel is the Gospel within the Old Testament.

Summa Contra Gentiles Book 1

Thomas Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles Book 1. trans. Anton C. Pegis. New York: Hanover House, 1955.

In God there is no passive potency.  With that one sentence one can deduce most of classical theism. Deny that sentence, and one’s theology is fraught with peril, if not outright heretical. Because of that loaded sentence, one should begin the journey here and not with Summa Theologiae.  The latter text is usually too difficult without a prior knowledge of medieval philosophy.

There are places where Thomas is wrong.  This is not one of those places.  If you have a heterodox doctrine of God (EFS, theistic personalism, etc), and when you are corrected on it, it does no good to say, “But Thomas was wrong on x, y, and z.”  Maybe he was, but that is not the issue under discussion.

When Thomas Aquinas uses terms like act, potency, and motion, he does not mean by them what you mean.  For example, when we say God is immobile, we mean that there is no potency in him requiring something other than God to activate God.  Motion is the act the of something that is in potency.  Since there is no potency in God (i.e., no unrealized aspect), then there is no motion in God.

Furthermore, God is eternal.  This appears to be more familiar to today’s readers.  Thomas’s reasoning will not be.  When we say God is eternal, we mean God has no internal motion.[1] If God is not eternal, then he must be brought into being by another.  Again, we are back to the original statement: there is no passive potency in God.  If there were, then God would depend on someone (or thing) beside himself to be God.

This eliminates any form of composition or any denial of divine simplicity. All composites have both act and potency. Moreover, composites are subsequent to components.[2] As James Dolezal has so eloquently stated, “All that is in God is God.”[3]

Even though Thomas has not yet said that all of God’s attributes are identical to his essence, one can see where he is going.  That raises a question, though.  If the divine names signify the essence, then how are the names not synonymous with one another?  Aquinas answers that they do not signify the same notion.[4]

Continuing upon this line of thought, God is his essence. The essence of a thing is either the thing itself, or it is related to it by some cause.  Yet nothing can be the cause of God.  Therefore, God is his essence.[5]

Can there be two perfect Gods?  No.  If two Gods are equally perfect, then there must be some way to distinguish them—something must be added to one or both.  But if something is added to a God, then he (or she) cannot be perfect.[6]

Those of us in the Reformed tradition would do well to pay attention to his remarks on God’s knowledge and will.  God knows all things by his essence. That is fairly standard in Western Christianity. That is God’s natural knowledge.  God also knows all possibles.  That is God’s knowledge of vision.  And since all potencies arise from him, the First Cause, he knows an infinite array of possibilities.

Thomas’s comments on divine willing are very useful for modern discussions of free will and determinism.  Given that God is his willing, and God is a necessary being, does this make everything in the world “necessary”?  No. When God wills something, he wills it to the “ordered end of his goodness.”  I think Thomas is arguing for something like secondary causes.  He uses the example of a doctor and medicine.

On another line of thought, when God wills things, he wills things “insofar as they participate in his goodness.”  Since no created thing’s participation is entire in the essence of God, there is no 1:1 willing.

In conclusion, this text is probably the second place to start one’s journey on Thomas Aquinas.  On Being and Essence is the most accessible, especially the edition by Armand Maurer.  The introduction should give the reader a decent grasp on the issues involved.  With that under the reader’s belt, Summa Contra Gentiles should be no trouble. 

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles Book 1, (New York: Hanover House, 1955), sect. 15.

[2] Ibid, sect. 18.

[3] James Dolezal, All that is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Theism, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017).

[4] Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, sect 35.

[5] Ibid, sect 21.

[6] Ibid, sect 42.

Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works

Davies, Brian and Evans, Gillian. eds. Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

In 2005, I bought this volume before I left for seminary. It has been a constant companion ever since. Anselm did not anticipate every problem in contemporary philosophy of religion, but he did anticipate the most important problems. Even when his conclusions might not convince, one can only stand in wonder at how clearly he stated the problems.


This is Anselm’s treatise on God’s being.  It should be required reading for all discussions on divine simplicity. In short, differing things can both be said to be “good,” yet it is clear they are not the same thing. They are good though a greater good. This ultimate good is good through itself. Anselm calls this the supreme good and ascribes the predicate “existence” to it. This is the first plank in the “perfect being theology.”  

Everything that exists, exists through something or nothing. Obviously not through nothing. There is either one or more things through which everything exists. Either one of these options will ultimately reduce to one thing.[i] Anything that exists through something other than itself is necessarily less than that thing through which it exists. Anselm calls this the divine essence. It is the highest good and efficient cause of all things.

Creation ex nihilo

Things didn’t spring from nothing as from a void.  Rather, they pre-existed in the Divine Mind. The Supreme Essence creates through an “inner verbalization.[ii]

Back to the main argument (sec. 15): “Now it is quite out of bounds to imagine that there could be some P true of the substance of the supreme nature such that ~P would be better in some respect.”  

God and Time

Sect. 21 gives the standard account of God’s timelessness. The Supreme Essence is not spatially in time.  Rather, it is present as a whole simultaneously to all places and times.

Sect. 23: We say God exists everywhere rather than in every place.

Sect. 26ff: Substance language.  In the rest of the treatise Anselm explores how the Son is of the Father.  It’s a good meditation but nothing new here.

Proslogion and Reply to Gaunilo

Either you are convinced of the ontological argument or you are not. I think it is more of a meditation on divine perfections than an actual argument. Gaunilo’s analogy to an island doesn’t work because an island, or a tree, implies contingency. A perfect being implies necessity.

Kant’s objection:  existence isn’t a predicate. A concept must contain as much content as possible.
Response: Kant’s objection holds for contingent things.  But if we are talking about modal necessity, it might not hold.

On Truth

In this dialogue Anselm begins by setting forth a roughly Platonic theory of truth: something is true by its participation in the truth.  That’s true (no pun intended).  It’s inadequate, though.  He sharpens it to mean: “A true statement has ‘its cause of truth.’”  There is something that just makes it true.  Modern analytic philosophy calls this something “a truthmaker.”  It is to Anselm’s credit that he anticipated this development. Of course, truthmaker theory is itself dense and this discussion can’t exhaust it.

He expands it to mean “truth is rectitude” (1.2). It fulfills its function of signifying rightly. In fact, he asserts that if both “truth” and “acting well” have the same contrary, then “they are not different in signification” (1.5).

This raises a problem, though.  If there is correlation between truth and being, then wouldn’t we have to say that some bad things (I’m deliberately not using the word ‘evil’) are true since they exist?  With these cases of “ought not to be,” Anselm opts for a “thinner” account. God only permits them.

On Free Will

Thesis: To be able to sin does not belong to the definition of free will (1.1).  However, we did have a capacity to sin or not to sin, yet this was not of necessity. We do have a “natural free will” of sorts (3). Our liberty of will is “the capacity of preserving rectitude of will.”

A truly free will is one that preserves rectitude of will for its own sake (13).

Why God Became Man

Aside from the ontological argument, this might be what Anselm is most known for. God became man because only a God-man could properly mediate between both God and man.  Seems simple enough.  Yes, this is substitutionary atonement, but not in the way a modern reader might think. Anselm’s primary argument is that only a God-man could restore the offense against God’s honor.  God, as our feudal lord, has been wronged.  This is not what we normally think of in the atonement.

That has always been my criticism of this book.  I was recently corrected on this by Mr. Philip Pugh.  He pointed out that Anselm’s model is closer to ANE covenant models than one might expect.  To be sure, Anselm knew nothing of such models. Nevertheless, if only by accident, he got much of it correct.


You cannot be called a serious student of theology if you have not read this book.  The Monologion and Proslogion could probably be read with profit every few years.  Other treatises, such as De Grammatico, are better read with commentaries on Anselm in h and.

[i] Davies and Evans, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 13.

[ii] Ibid.

God and Philosophy (Gilson)

Gilson, Etienne.  God and Philosophy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1946 [2002].

Each discipline has its handful of masters who have redefined the discipline in their own ways.  Etienne Gilson, the French neo-Thomist, is one such master. After Gilson, we now have to speak of “existential Thomism,” and we are much richer for it.  Gilson begins with a survey of Greek philosophy and why the Greeks could not escape their own metaphysics.  That is standard enough.  He then extends it to Augustine and notes that Augustine was hampered by the same metaphysics.  Thomas Aquinas rescued Augustine, only to have Descartes (and Kant) ruin it all.

Did the Greeks really believe in their gods?  That is not so easy to answer as one might suppose.  The problem is linking the Greek gods with the “principles” by which Greek philosophy tried to explain the universe.  Thales said the principle was water, another said it was fire, and so on.  As Gilson notes, “On the one side a man posits a certain natural element as the very stuff this world is made of,” and on the other side “the same man posits as a sort of axiom that all things are full of gods” (Gilson 3).  There is a continuum, then, between nature and the gods.

If one simply sees the gods as “mythological” explanations of nature, then there is no real problem.  Unfortunately, as Gilson notes, that will not work. Greek poets say that both the gods and nature (or natural elements) are living powers that have wills (7-8).  One could still rescue the Greek religion by saying that modern man sometimes personifies nature.  Very true.  Unfortunately, as Hera reminds Zeus, the gods must bow to Fate (11).  We do not speak of mythological natural elements this way.

Regardless of how one glosses the Iliad, the original problem remains: if the world is full of gods, then “either your gods are not principles (e.g., have no explanatory power–JA), or there is no longer one principle as the source of all things” (14). Making the matter even worse, nature seemed to be a self-explanatory fact. The best that Greece could do was Aristotle. The ultimate rational principle must be an Intelligence, not a thing. That is why Plato’s Idea failed. Ideas are not gods, nor are they persons.

Enter Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover. Before we ridicule Aristotle, we need to appreciate what he accomplished. He moved beyond Plato’s impasse.  Even better, his Thought is itself an eternal Act of thinking (33). As good as it is, there are problems.  His Thought can only think of Itself. There is no need for it to enter into a relationship with us.  Even worse, there is no connection between Thought and Existence.

Gilson has been criticized for reading Thomas Aquinas back into the Burning Bush, as though the living God of divine revelation were the same as the Unmoved Mover.  Such a criticism is premature, though.  If anything, Augustine and Aquinas introduced dynamism into the equation. There is a world of difference between “Thought thinking Thought” and “I am who is.” As Gilson notes, “Christian revelation was establishing existence as the deepest layer of reality as well as the supreme attribute of divinity” (44).

Plotinus, and later Augustine, could only speak in terms of “to be.”  For them, true being was immaterial, eternal, immutable–attributes that just as easily apply to Platonic Ideas as to God. For Aquinas, “to be is the very act whereby an essence is” (64). Previous philosophers had been stuck at the level of essence. Now with existence, we can understand how the existential energies flow to various essences (65).

Bottom line: existence is not a thing but the act that causes a thing (66).

Like many Catholic philosophers, Gilson’s story of later philosophy is one of decline and fall.  Nothing new is here, though his writing is wonderfully lucid and often funny.  Here are some examples:

“Because God is supremely intelligent, he could not fail to do what Descartes would have done, had Descartes been God” (96).

“A most gratifying certitude indeed, at least so long as it lasts, and Voltaire was to see to it that it did not outlive the earthquake of Lisbon” (99).

“All the other positions [i.e., between Thomas Aquinas and Kant] are but halfway houses on the roads which lead to absolute religious agnosticism or to the natural theology of Christian metaphysics.  Philosophical halfway houses have always been pretty crowded” (114).

This might be the best intro to Gilson, if not necessarily the best intro to Thomas Aquinas.  The order of reading should be thus: the present work, Thomas’s Being and Essence, Feser’s work on Aquinas, and then probably Aquinas himself.

Aristotle for Everybody (Adler)

Adler, Mortimer J.  Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy.

Even with the advances in science, Aristotle’s shadow is unavoidable.  We still operate with concepts like “part,” “whole,” “motion,” “change,” etc.  Despite modern pedagogy in the university, we still use logic and assume it is valid.

“Great Divide”

First problem: What differentiates “all living organisms from inert bodies” (Adler 5)? From this we draw a line between some living organisms and others.  Aristotle keeps drawing these lines and classifying individuals.  In order to do this, he posits that each thing has a nature. He finally arrives at the conclusion that man is a rational animal.

On one side of the line are “bodies.”  On the other side are “attributes.” The key idea is that an attribute exists in a thing but not of itself.  A stone’s weight exists in the stone, but no one thinks that the weight of a stone exists on its own.  Moreover, a body changes; the attributes do not.  The attribute of hardness doesn’t become “smoothness.”  Rather, the stone becomes smooth.

We can best discuss man by seeing him in three different dimensions:

Man is:

Making (Beautiful).  This covers the metaphysical angle.

Doing (Good)

Knowing (True)

Man the Maker

A work of art is man-made. It is more accurate to say that man produces; he does not create.

Change and Permanence

The problem is how can something always be in a state of becoming, always in change, yet remain the same.  One type of change is motion (a change in place), alteration (a change in quality), and a change in quantity.  All of these changes take place in time.

The Four Causes

I can’t do any better than to quote Adler:

1. Material cause: that out of which something is made.
2. Efficient cause: that by which something is made.
3. Formal cause: that into which something is made.
4. Final cause: that for the sake of which something is made 

To Be or Not to Be

To understand Aristotle on being, we need a firm grasp of “matter,” “form,” “potentiality” and “actuality” (50).

Privation is a lack of a certain form. Potentiality is when you predicate the words “can be” of a thing.  A matter can lack a form but nonetheless have the potentiality for it. “Matter always has a limited potentiality for acquiring other forms” (53).

Man the Doer

Man usually acts towards a goal. This is practical thinking, thinking about means and ends. Means are the ways we achieve our goal or other means.  For Aristotle the end to which we aim is “living well.” However, when Aristotle says we are to aim for the right ultimate end, this isn’t relative.  There is an actual objective Good to which all seek to aim. People who do not aim for this objective end have disordered passions.

This is happiness.  It is important to note that ancient man didn’t consider those who were still living to be truly happy.

Man the Knower

“The senses are the doorway to the mind” (130). They are instruments, and in a nice turn of the phrase, the mind, too, is an instrument.  It is the “form of forms” (134). Thinking does more, as it also “relates the ideas it produces.”

The next chapter is on the laws of logic.  In some ways, that chapter alone is worthy of an entire review.  On the other hand, there isn’t much in it that isn’t also found in other logic texts. Some comments are appropriate, though.  For example, the term in both major and minor premises is the middle term. It functions to connect the major premise and the conclusion.

Moreover, if the major premise is negative, the conclusion must be negative.  A positive conclusion cannot follow from negative premises.

I recommend this book to any starter in philosophy.

On Being and Essence (Thomas Aquinas)

Thomas Aquinas, On Being and Essence. Trans. Armand Maurier. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1968.

It’s hard to know where to start with Thomas Aquinas. His various Summas are important, but that is a steep learning curve and also demands a good, working knowledge of secondary Thomist literature. I think this current volume might be the best place to start.  It is short and focused, whereas the Summa is close to being a transcript of an oral Master’s thesis. The introduction by Armand Maurier makes this volume doubly good.

The argument at its most basic: being as esse is the actuality of being, the act of existence.  Think of it along more dynamic lines.  Being as ens is the substance that has the actuality of being.  Whatever esse an ens has, the esse structures the ens.

Citations from this book will be by chapter and section.  “1.1” is chapter one, section one.

“Essence must be something common to all the natures through which different beings are placed in different generas and species” (Aquinas 1.3).  Neither form nor matter is an essence.  Matter cannot be an essence because it is not a principle of knowledge (2.1). It can’t be either because both are needed for the being of a substance.

Key ideas: “The genus, then, signifies indeterminately everything in the species and not the matter alone” (2.8). It is the “whole” of a thing without its “this-ness,” or specific form. A genus is proportionate to the whatness of a thing; specifies to its form; and difference to the composite nature (2.9).

Human nature isn’t the form itself or the matter itself, and if we can’t know it through the matter, how do we know it? Human nature has its being in the intellect abstracted “all individuating factors” (3.6).

On Predication

We predicate something when our intellect combines and divides things (3.8).

A form is only intelligible when it is abstracted from matter, and only something immaterial can abstract it.

Key idea: a being is either uncaused, caused by the principles of its being, or receives its being from outside itself. Therefore, everything whose being is distinct from its nature receives its being from another (4.7). Thomas suggests, though doesn’t really develop it, that one could extend this chain to the first cause, pure being.

You don’t have to agree with Thomas Aquinas.  I am more of a Scotist myself when it comes to knowledge of God and the human will.  But if you are unfamiliar with the arguments in this book, and you choose to criticize Thomas Aquinas, then you deserve something like what happened when Ed Feser reviewed Jeffrey Johnson’s book on Aquinas.