Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Quaeritur: Does Aquinas Fall into the Heresy of Modalism?


QuaeriturI've run into someone who keeps accusing St Thomas of teaching Modalism via Summa theologiae I.39.1c, by conflating Person and Nature in God (making them synonymous). I'd really appreciate any help/commentary you can point me to.  I've read the section multiple times and don't see modalism, but I'd really like some input from folks educated in that department.

Respondeo: This is an issue which not only surpasses all created intellects, but in a particular way surpasses mine, which is that of a mere beginner in theology. The De Deo Trino is truly the most difficult treatise in all of theology.

The simple answer is that this text does not teach modalism for the following reason: Modalism (in the sense of Sabellianism) claims that the distinction of Persons in God is not a real distinction in God (in se), but a distinction of reason in the believer (quoad nos). It is obvious that this is not Aquinas' teaching, since he explicitly teaches passim, including in this text, that the Divine persons are really (i.e., in se) distinct.

Buy there is something much more interesting in this text than its not teaching Modalism. It is interesting that you bring this up because, not three weeks ago I looked at this text myself for the first time, and was surprised by it. I wasn't surprised because I thought it fell into heresy, but rather, because, while I have faith that the text is not heretical (St. Thomas cannot be a heretic), nonetheless I had always conceived of the Persons in God as being distinct from the Divine Nature. So, what struck me was that the relations in God are actually identical to the Divine Essence! Now that I have pondered it for a while, I have realized that it makes sense. It stands to reason that each of the Persons of the Blessed Trinity must each be identical to the Divine Essence: how else can the Second Person of the Trinity be God, if He is not identical to the Divine Essence? If the Second Person were something really different from the Divine Essence, then the Second Person would not be God!

But then, what about the seeming contradiction in Aquinas' teaching, namely, that (a) the Divine Relations are distinct from each other, but (b) they are not distinct from the Divine Nature? It's a seeming contradiction because, according to Aristotelian Logic, if two (or three) things are identical to a third (or fourth), they are identical to each other. But what I have found, based on Cajetan's and Garrigou-Lagrange's commentaries on this issue, is that this seems like a contradiction only to those who conceive of God as falling into our categories of being, into our logic, who conceive of the absolute and the relative as being categories that are prior to God and into which God must be categorized. But in reality God is beyond being, and is prior to our categories of 'absolute' and 'relative'. Here are Cajetan's famous, sublime words regarding our inability to understand this mystery (in ST I.39.1):

We fall into error when we proceed from the absolute and the relative to God, because the distinction between absolute and relative is conceived by us as prior to God and therefore we try to place God in one or the other of these two members of the distinction. Whereas the complete opposite is the case. The divine nature is prior to being and all its differences, it transcends all being and is above unity, etc. Thus, in God there is but one formal nature or reason, and this is neither purely absolute nor purely relative... but it contains most eminently and formally both that which is of absolute perfection and whatever the relative Trinity requires.

So I have no personal solution to this problem except to say that Aquinas' text seems reasonable, although wrapped in mystery, and to say that perhaps if you look at the different Thomistic commentators, they might shed light onto the issue. I would recommend you look, in particular, at Garrigou-Lagrange (God the Trinity and the Creator).

Let me know what you else you find!

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