The problem with creation and the divine persons as real relations

A Theology of the possible, part 4

Related to James Ross’s critique of the exemplarist dogma that there are external real relations of participation or exemplification which are responsible for making the things that exist to be the kinds of things that they are, are two further discussions that I hope to address in the future. The first concerns St. Thomas’s teaching in, for example, ST 1.45, that creation itself is nothing but an external relation of metaphysical dependence of the creature on the Creator. Using much the same line of reasoning as Ross, Frederick Wilhelmsen in “Creation as Relation in St. Thomas Aquinas” (Being and Knowing) shows that, as a relation, a thing’s created status must in some sense be posterior to or consequent upon the thing itself. One unwelcome and, indeed, highly un-Rossian consequence of Wilhelmsen’s interpretation of Aquinas’s doctrine of creation-as-relation, however, is his highly secularized or at least a-theological an univocist interpretation of Thomistic essences: because creation is a mere relation inhering in a thing, and are not therefore contained in the essence by which the thing is constituted, the abstracted essences of things, according to Wilhelmsen, tell us nothing in and of themselves about the created status of the things they are the essences of. For Ross, by contrast, as we shall see, created essences, while the product of divine will, are nevertheless reflective of the divine nature and would not be what they are had God not determined them to have the formal features that they do. No essence, in other words, is theologically neutral.

A second discussion which I would like to correlate at some point with Ross’s critique of the external relation of participation or exemplification is Russell Friedman’s study of Medieval Trinitarian Thought from Aquinas to Ockham. In the high to late Middle Ages, a significant debate was waged over the question of which “personal properties” are responsible for constituting the three persons of the Trinity, simultaneously accounting for their unity of essence and diversity of personhood. The position favored by the Dominicans was the “relational account”–the persons are constituted first and foremost as relations—whereas the Franciscans favored an “emanationist account”—the persons are constituted by the way they emanate from the others (or in the case of the Father, the way he doesn’t emanate from anything else). In their criticisms of each other, both positions, again, invoked arguments similar to that made by Ross. For the Franciscans, for example, the question was how the persons of the Trinity could be constituted by their relations to each other unless the relata of those relations were not already constituted, say, in terms of their emanation (or non-emanation) from each other. My suspicion, or at least question at this point, is whether the corollary to Ross’s position in this debate isn’t that of the twelfth-century monk Praepositinus, who rejected any attempt to account for the distinction of the persons of the Trinity in terms of a putatively more basic “personal property.” For Praepositinus, the persons are constitutive of themselves and of each other, and that’s all.

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