08 August 2002

Back to the nominalism thread. Having explained Thomas in some detail, the rest of the story is easier since it can be described in terms of deviations from Thomas’ original schema which had been built upon the thought of earlier Christian thinkers, particularly Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius. Let us turn then to the thought of John Duns Scotus (1266-1308).

There are several important shifts that Duns Scotus (and later, nominalism) introduced into wider questions as they had been explicated by Thomas. The major Scotist shift was a denial of the analogy of being and, with it, the analogical use of language. Scotus maintained that it is possible to consider “being” or “existence” in abstraction from the question of created or uncreated being, the absolute distinction between Creator and creature. In doing this, however, Scotus established the separation of philosophy (ontology and epistemology) from theology since it, on his view, it would be possible to construct a philosophical ontology that is unconstrained by and transcendentally prior to theology itself, philosophy thereby being permitted to set the conditions for theology. Other separations and dichotomies (nature/grace, nature/supernature, faith/reason) flow from this basic shift.

Since for Scotus language functions univocally, God and creation can be set univocally within one undifferentiated chain of being. This, however, introduces serious difficulties into language and its ability to refer since “being” can now refer univocally to two different realities—created and uncreated—and thus language, and our ideas and concepts expressed in language, become a mask over reality rather than a medium by which reality is able to reveal itself to us in the context of the event of knowing. This in turn begins to shift epistemology into a direction in which the subject and object of knowledge become increasingly related extrinsically and externally, rather than maintaining the kind of interior intentional connection that was found in earlier thought.

With regard to nature and supernature (and its concomitant, nature and grace), the Scotist picture involves a twofold separation and fission between God and the creation (even if Scotus’ intent in this separation was to safeguard the gratuity of grace). First, since God and creation are both situated within one univocal extension called “being” (which simultaneously blurs the proper distinction between Creator and creature), it is possible to explain and think about the world in relation to existence in general without reference to God in particular. Thus the world becomes the self-enclosed system of “nature,” a material reality that remains complete in itself and at our disposal, not inherently opening towards and revelatory of God.

Second, God’s relation to the creation within this single extension of “being” must be theorized simply in terms of God’s degree of existence (quantity), rather than in a truly analogous possession of existence in an entirely different way (quality). For Scotus, God simply is to a greater degree than created things, rather than having an entirely different mode of existence. In this way, God becomes reduced to a being who is univocally like us, but more powerful in every respect, possessing our attributes to a maximal degree of empowerment. This thereby, in effect, identifies God’s essence with the omnipotent divine will. This provides the foundation for later divine “voluntarism” (which Luther and Calvin in some respects inherited), by which God’s absolute will is unconstrained by other aspects of his nature, raising questions such as “can God make 2 + 2 = 5 ?” and the spectre of an arbitrary divine will is raised.

Moreover, given this conceptualization of God’s relationship to the world, the operation of grace must be seen as an extrinsic operation that is super-added from outside of the creation—one self-enclosed being acting upon another within the wider realm of being, divine causality being simply a more powerful, but univocal parallel to created efficient causality. Creation is no longer, as for Thomas, in itself ordered to grace as a necessary condition for its eschatological completion and yet as something that can only be received as a sheer gift.

Since, on the Scotistic picture, grace becomes external to the order of nature, on an individual experiential level, the operation of grace becomes unknowable and undetectable except by a sheer act of faith. Moreover, grace tends to be reified into another layer of reality that must be super-added to nature as a further kind of “stuff” and which operates upon the individual soul as an external cause. Religion, thus, begins to be pushed to the margins of what is distinctively human and natural, a development that will have significant implications for the Renaissance isolation of the “secular” as a particular space of human existence, under the sole scrutiny of human reason.

In terms of faith and reason, then, for Scotus these are no longer two coordinate ways of knowing that mutually presuppose one another, but are extrinsically related, separate modes of knowledge. Reason can only know the world through ideas and language which are rendered problematic by the way in which they potentially mask reality and, therefore, they must be secured by an act of the divine will (as later happens in Descartes’ Meditations).

Faith, on the other hand, works on the level of grace and the supernatural and must only deal with discrete, revealed punctiliar entities—either revealed facts or grace-given experiences that are incommensurate with human experience as a whole. In terms of theological facts, special revelation becomes a wholly unique mode of divine disclosure, discontinuous with natural revelation, enshrined, on some models, in the revelation of individual propositional truths proposed to faith (on some views of Scripture) or through externally imposed authority (on some views of the magisterium).

In terms of human experience, the salvation becomes something that remains outside of our conscious personal life. Rather, in order to be saved (i.e. attain one's supernatural end through grace), a person must strive to receive grace by doing those things specifically revealed as granting grace (sacraments, spiritual and corporal works of mercy, etc.) and avoiding things revealed as destroying grace (mortal sin). This, in turn, easily falls into those “mechanized” or “magical” views of sacramental causality that were criticized by both the Reformers and later Catholic theologians.

Of course, most of these developments are not to be found in Scotus himself in any explicit form, but awaited their unfolding in the later thought of various theologians (e.g., Ockham, Biel) and the ways in which these trends trickled down into popular piety and, still later, even into Enlightenment philosophy (e.g., Descartes). In my next post I’ll try to set out some of these further shifts and turns.