Augustine vs. Aquinas on the analogicity of theology

Returning to Augustine’s Confessions after a semester’s immersion in Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles, I am struck by the obvious: these two men, for all their similarities, are very, very different. In the Confessions, Augustine revels in linguistic paradox: the ambiguities, subtleties, and sublimities of divine truth are by turns a spur to further intellectual labor, inquiry, and reflection, as well as a profound source of rest and comfort in which alone–when human language and thought are pushed beyond their limits–can there be any full assurance that a true confession of God’s praises (so far as is humanly possible) has been achieved.

Contrast this with the logical and linguistic rigor and precision sought after and achieved in medieval scholasticism: while certainly retaining something of the spiritual and doxological impetus inspiring Augustine and the monastic and mystical traditions, this energy is nevertheless almost wholly co-opted, channeled, and spent in what has been aptly termed scholasticism’s “will to order.” Thus, while an otherwise Augustinian thinker such as Thomas Aquinas will continue to affirm, at least in principle, that all our language about God, for example, is predicated of him “analogically” rather than “univocally,” and he will allow that it is appropriate that Scripture should use metaphors, in the theological science that is the Summa Theologiae neither analogical nor metaphorical speech—the stuff of Augustine’s Confessions—have much if any place.

In summary, in contrast with Augustine’s delightful revelry in and willing surrender to linguistic paradox, in the scholasticism of Aquinas we have a much greater optimism or confidence in the power of human reason and language to speak with unequivocal precision about divine truth.

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