Thursday, December 24, 2009

Duns Scotus against Henry on the Creation Problem

Even though Henry of Ghent garnered a healthy group of followers (see the last post for details), there were some dissentors. Scotus was one of the students that grew up under Henry. In fact, Scotus may have even sat in Henry’s classroom. But unlike many of his classmates, Scotus was not happy with Henry’s theory. Scotus was against it.

Scotus’s real problem with Henry’s view is this: it makes the divine essence the subject of incompatible properties. I mean, fatherhood and sonship are incompatible. In logic, we would call them irreflexive relations. Someone can be the father of someone else, and someone can be the son of someone else. But nobody can be the father and son of himself, right? So if the divine essence were like a lump of matter that exemplified both fatherhood and sonship, then the divine essence would be both the father and son of itself! And that’s just flat out impossible.

Indeed, that’s like saying that a lump of clay is shaped like both a statue and a vase at the same time. But that’s crazy. A lump of clay has got to be one or the other, it can’t be both.

So Scotus thinks we cannot say that the divine essence is like a lump of matter or subject of fatherhood and sonship. On the contrary, says Scotus, the divine essence has got to be more like a form that the persons share.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Henry of Ghent on How the Son is Produced 'From Materials'

As I explained in the last post, Henry of Ghent argues that the Son must be produced from materials in some sense, for otherwise the Son would quite literally be created 'from nothing'. Still, Henry recognizes that he needs to explain how that is possible.

To do that, Henry points out that according to Aristotle, you produce things by taking a lump of matter and giving it a form. As an analogy, a sculptor makes a clay statue by taking a lump of clay, and giving it a statue shape. Similarly, says Aristotle, anything that gets produced is made by taking a lump of matter and giving it a form.

Henry likes this model. He points out, “look, the matter is not produced, but the form is”. A sculptor doesn’t produce the clay. She simply gives it a shape. Something similar happens in the Godhead.

According to Henry, and indeed all his scholastic contemporaries, each divine person includes two ingredients: first, there’s a shared divine essence. This is a single item that all three share. So it’s not like sharing a piece of cake where you cut it up into pieces and dish it out. The divine essence is one, undivided thing that exists in all three persons.

Second, each person has a unique ingredient that belongs only to them. These are called ‘personal properties’. So to take the Father and Son, the Father’s unique ingredient is called fatherhood, and the son’s is called sonship. So the Father and Son each share one divine essence, but they also each have their own unique ingredient, fatherhood or sonship.

Henry then says, “look, the divine essence is shared by the Father and Son. So the Father doesn’t produce it in the Son. He just shares it. Sonship, on the other hand, does get produced with the Son. It is unique to the Son, so it only exists when the Son does. So the divine essence is not produced in the Son, but his sonship is.”

And that’s just like a clay statue. The clay does not get produced, but its shape does. So Henry concludes that the divine essence is like a lump of matter, and the personal properties are like forms.

If you can imagine three gold statues all made from the same lump of gold at the same time, that’s very close to what Henry has in mind.

Now, if you think about the medieval context here, this might seem like a really wild idea. This is the age of high scholasticism and perfect being theology, so surely Henry would get condemned as a heretic, and denounced as a crazy man.

But amazingly, that’s not the case. Henry actually ended up with a number of loyal supporters on this issue. Among his students, and even among the next generation of students after that, a number of them thought Henry had hit the nail on the head.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Henry of Ghent against Peter Lombard on the Creation Problem

Henry is acutely aware of the Creation Problem, and this comes out very clearly when he disagrees with Peter Lombard.

Peter Lombard lived at the beginning of the 12th century (1100-1160), and he is a very important figure for medieval philosophy. The reason is this: he wrote a very long book on theology called the Sentences. It is essentially a compilation of quotations from church fathers on a variety of topics. Lombard arranged all this material into a series of ‘yes/no’ questions, with quotations on the ‘yes’ side, and quotations on the ‘no’ side. And occasionally, Lombard would give his own opinion too.

Before long, the Sentences became the standard textbook in theology. In the 13th and 14th centuries, if you were a doing a PhD in theology, you had to lecture on the Sentences. And his was like your dissertation. It was your big theological magnum opus. So Peter is very important simply because he wrote the major medieval textbook for theology.

Now, at one point in the Sentences, Peter asks if the Son is created from nothing. Peter of course says no. The Son is not produced from nothing. He is produced from something.

To back this up, Peter appeals to the Nicene Creed, the earliest Christian Creed. The Nicene Creed says that the Son is produced from the Father’s substance, so Peter says, “the Son is not produced from nothing, he’s produced from the Father’s substance.”

But what does that mean? Peter explains it like this: he says the Son is produced by the Father, who is a substance.

Well, Henry points out that that’s all well and good, but creatures are produced by a substance too, namely God. And creatures are created. So just saying that the Son is produced by a substance does not tell us that the Son is not created.

As Henry sees it, in order to show that the Son is not created, we have to say that the Son is produced from materials in some sense. Otherwise, the Son would be produced from nothing, in which case he would be created.

So Henry really seems to buy into this Avicennian idea that if you produce something without materials, then you create it. And since Henry doesn’t want to say that the Son is created, he says the Son must be produced with materials in some sense or other.

Now, Henry knows this would have sounded absolutely crazy to his contemporaries. I mean, this is the age of high scholasticism. This is the age of perfect being theology. God is the most supreme being, he is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”. And the greatest conceivable being is going to be totally perfect, and that means God is going to be totally good, totally perfect, and totally immaterial. He won’t be limited by material dimensions, or anything like that. So Henry knows that his contemporaries are going to say, “Whoa! God is not material in any way!”

So Henry needs to show exactly how or in what sense we can say that the Son is produced ‘with materials’. That is what I will discuss next.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Solving the Creation and Subordination Problems

In the last two posts, I described what I call the 'Creation' and 'Subordination' problems. Here, I want to say something about different ways to solve these Problems. Christian scholastics are dealing with two sets of claims. On the one hand, they have a set from Aristotle and Avicenna (from Aristotle: things can only be produced with materials, from Avicenna: things produced without materials are created and inferior to their producers). On the other hand, they have their own Christian set of claims about divine production (namely, T1, T2, and T3 from the last two posts). As I explained in the last two posts, putting these two sets of claims together results in the Creation and Subordination Problems.

To avoid these two Problems, a scholastic thinker like Scotus or Ockham must reject something from either set of claims. As for the Christian claims (T1-T3), scholastics like Scotus and Ockham feel that T1 and T3 are required by Christian doctrine, for T1 is required by the Nicene Creed, and T3 is required to avoid subordinationism. Consequently, they are not going to reject T1 or T3. However, authors like Scotus or Ockham do not think that T2 is required for orthodoxy in the way that T1 and T3 are. Rather, they see T2 as just a very plausible claim.

In principle then, a scholastic thinker could reject T2, and that could be one way to avoid the Creation and Subordination Problems. For instance, if one were to say that the Son is, in fact, produced from some sort of pre-existing material, then the Son would not be created from nothing, and by consequence, the Son would not necessarily be less perfect than his producer (the Father).

But of course, T2 is extremely plausible, so anyone who wants to reject it would have to explain how a divine person --- who is entirely spiritual and therefore without any material components at all --- could be produced from 'pre-existing materials'. And that is certainly no easy task.

Alternatively, someone Scotus or Ockham could reject one of the claims from Aristotle or Avicenna. That too could be a way to avoid the Creation and Subordination Problems. However, Aristotle’s and Avicenna’s theories are designed to explain production, so if one were to reject a part of these theories, they would have to provide an alternative account, and that too is no easy task.