The Intersection of Augustinian Exemplarism and Boethian Eternalism

Damian’s Theology of the Possible, part 4

I’m returning here to my series on St. Peter Damian’s theology of divine possibility, in the first part of which I am critiquing the theistic possibilism of the conventional interpretation of Damian’s teaching on omnipotence, which I hope to follow later with an appreciation of the comparative actualism of recent revised accounts of Damian’s doctrine.

We begin by noting that Peter Damian’s account of divine omnipotence is obviously rooted in an Augustianian and Boethian foundation of divine knowledge and eternality: “as the ability [posse] to do all things is coeternal to God, the Creator of all things, so also is his power to know all things…” For Damian, God’s power “to do all things,” and to do them at “all times past, present, and future,” is of a piece with his ability to “know all things.” Drawing from the traditions of Augustinian exemplarism and Boethian eternalism, however, Damian’s theory of omnipotence would also seem to imbibe heavily from their possibilism as well. According to Augustine’s doctrine of divine ideas, all possible creatures determinately pre-exist in the mind of God, from which archtypes God chooses what he makes real in the act of creation. What is possible for God to do or make, in short, is prior to and independent of what God actually does or makes. To this infinite array of divine possibles eternally open and available to God, Boethius’s theory of divine foreknowledge added the further consideration of creation’s entire temporal existence, with all of its possibilities, as likewise extended before God’s eternal all-surveying gaze. Given the influence of Augustine and Boethius, it is understandable that, on the received view, Damian omnipotence has been located at what is effectively the intersection of Augustinian exemplarism and Boethian divine foreknowledge: God is able to do “all the things” he knows at “all the times” that he knows them. To extend the spatial analogy at the heart of Boethus’s account of God’s atemporality, the infinite, two-dimensional plane (as it were) of Augustine’s logically extended domain of all possible creatures, extracted along (or, alternatively, revolved around) the temporal axis of Boethian divine foreknowledge, renders the now three-dimensional possibilism of Damian omnipotence: all possible creatures open and available for actualization (or de-actualization) at all possible times.

Augustine’s “linguistic turn”

A while back I argued that Anselm’s doctrine of the divine locutio (“utterance,” “expression”) helped resolve an ambiguity at the heart of Augustine’s doctrine of the divine Verbum, namely his ambivalence between a more verbal or linguistic model for understanding the second person of the Trinity on the one hand and a more visual and hence intellectual model on the other. Related to this is another ambiguity in Augustine’s thought, this time within his philosophy of language itself. To develop, for the time being, just one side of that tension, John Milbank has argued that there are significant elements in Augustine’s theology of language which push against the kind of “linguistic rationalism” that dominated much ancient, patristic, and medieval reflection on the subject. Milbank draws particular attention to the Aristotelian and Stoic “semantic triangle” of word-idea-referent, which he criticizes as implying an “instrumentalist view of the relation of language to thought, a strict distinction between ‘sign’ and ‘thing’, and a general denial of any sort of ‘essential’ relation between sign and thing signified.”[2] Yet it was also the Stoics who first “decisively modified” the semantic triangle “by interpreting the meaning-content (semainomenon) [of words] not as eternal “Idea,” nor as psychological “thought,” but rather as a lekton, a position within a system of signification.” One of virtues of this revised understanding of the relationship between words and their meaning, on Milbank’s view, was its insight into the irreducibly linguistic character of the act of signification, such that “the lekton, as an ‘incorporeal’ sign of something else, always connotes other elements in a moving continuum, rather than denotes extra-linguistic onta… The ‘incorporeal’ character of these lekta does not indicate any Platonic, eternal status, but rather a ‘temporally indefinite’ character.”[3] Put in modal terms, in the place of Aristotle and Plato’s “semantic possibilism” (as we might deem it), according to which it is a prior realm of fixed, abstract thought and eternal ideas that provides the possibility of the meaningfulness of words and things, the Stoic doctrine of lekta substituted a “semantic actualism” according to which the meaning of a word depends on all the other words there are and hence may be connoted within the dynamic “continuum” of a given “system of signification.” They are traces of this Stoic modification of the semantic triangle, finally, that Milbank finds evidence of in Augustine when, for example, and following the Stoics, he “speaks of a verbum cordis or verbum mentis, rather than just ‘a thought’,” or when “Augustine is so aware of the sign-character of words, and the indispensability of the artificial system of language for thought, that in De Magistro he declares that one can give the meaning of a word only by another word, or else by a gesture which is still a sort of sign.”[4] Elaborating on Augustine’s doctrine of the “inner word” in particular, Milbank finds here that Augustine “construes thought as ‘intentional’, or as having a sign-character (the Stoic lekton) which, especially in the De Trinitate, promotes a non-substantive, relational ontology…”[5]  (This move is paralleled, as we shall see later, in his commentary on Genesis, where he likewise shifts the source of creaturely possibility from the Platonic divine ideas to the less substantive, more relational and immanent ontology of the Stoic rationes seminales or “rational seeds.”) Indeed, Milbank suggests that

Augustine actually goes further than the Stoics in one respect, by becoming the first person in history unequivocally to place the linguistic word itself in the category of sign: verbum est uniuscuiusque rei signum. For the Stoics the word itself still stood in a relationship of definitional equivalence to the lekta, if not to referential res (as for Aristotle). As Umberto Eco has pointed out, Augustine’s conflation was a potentially momentous innovation, because by bringing words under a category traditionally to do with ‘natural’ relationships of typical implication (as the sequence fire/smoke, considered generically) Augustine opened the way to seeing that word and ‘dictionary definition’ are never fully reciprocal. Quite to the contrary, words can only be explicated ‘intensionally’, through a process of semiotic inference which relates no longer (as for the Stoics) more or less readily to nature, but only to a particular cultural-linguistic ‘segmentation’ of reality.[6]

In each of these ways, in sum, Augustine dimly foreshadows the later Renaissance humanist view of thought as sign—a “Trinitarian redefinition of the ideas as ‘word’ or ‘art’”[7]—and beyond that, the eighteenth-century insight of such Christian philosophers as Berkeley, Hamann, Herder, and Vico into the “indispensability of language for thought,” the ultimate “impossibility of distinguishing ‘sign’ from ‘thing’,” and the recognition of “reality as constituted by signs and their endless ramifications”[8] that anticipate and hence which allow for a more “positive assessment of language.”[9]


[2] Milbank, The Word Made Strange, 84.

[3] Ibid., 89.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 90.

[6] Ibid., 89-90.

[7] Ibid., 93.

[8] Ibid., 85.

[9] Ibid., 96.

The Naming and Narrative of Treebeard and Yahweh

In a well-known passage, Treebeard explains to Merry and Pippin the Entish philosophy of naming:

For I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate.’ A queer half-knowing, half-humorous look came with a green flicker into his eyes. ‘For one thing it would take a long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say. It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.

In other words, the name of a thing is its narrative: things are identified by their temporal eventfulness. According to Robert Jenson (Systematic Theology, Vol. 1: The Triune God), what is true of Treebeard is likewise true of the God of the Old and New Testaments.

God… is uniquely described by the narrative of the Exodus-event, and the one so described has a personal proper name, JHWH. The description and the name in their interplay determine Israel’s relationship to her God. Asked who God is, Israel’s answer is, “Whoever rescued us from Egypt.” Asked about her access to this God, Israel’s answer is, “We are permitted to call on him by name”… In [the Decalogue], the name and the narrative description are side by side, to make one identification: “I am JHWH your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.”…

To the question “Who is God?” the New Testament has one new descriptively identifying answer: “Whoever raised Jesus from the dead.” Identification by the Resurrection neither replaces nor is simply added to identification by the Exodus; the new identifying description verifies its paradigmatic predecessor…. Thus the phrase “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is simultaneously a very compressed telling of the total narrative by which Scripture identifies God and a personal name for the God so specified; in it, name and narrative description only appear together, as at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, but are identical.

In Treebeard’s terms, accordingly, Yahweh’s name is a “real name” first, because it “tells you the story of the thing” it names, and secondly, because like any other living thing, it is “growing all the time.”

Theology as Eucatastrophe

I posted yesterday on “theology as fantasy.” Related to this, there is also a respect in which theology as our discourse about God is also a kind of “eucatastrophe” of all our other discourses. Milbank writes:

while insisting that no human discourse has any ‘secular’ or ‘scientific’ autonomy in relation to theology, I seek to recognize equally that theology has no ‘proper’ subject matter, since God is not an object of our knowledge, and is not immediately accessible. Instead, theology must always speak ‘also’ about the creation, and therefore always ‘also’ in the tones of human discourses about being, nature, society, language and so forth. A ‘theological’ word only overlays these discourses…in a certain disruptive difference that is made to them. Here, also, there is a ‘making strange’. (Word Made Strange 3)

Milbank’s account of theology may be compared here to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Ringswhich Tolkien describes in one place as being “basically about God,” yet God is never actually mentioned in it. This is deliberate, however, since by not making God a character or “subject” within his narrative, Tolkien thereby frees God to more dramatically “disrupt” (to use Milbank’s term) the narrative with his acts of eucatastrophic intervention and deliverance. Here we have a metaphor for how Milbank sees theology working as a discourse: it talks about everything “except” God, and in that way equips us to always be talking about him. To adapt another statement by Tolkien, theology is that discourse that frees all our other discourses to have God be “that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named” (Letters no. 192). Theology is the eucatastrophe, in other words, of every discourse.

Theology as Fantasy

According to Tolkien, one of the primary tasks of fairy-story is that of “Fantasy,” of presenting an alternate, secondary world characterized by an “arresting strangeness” and element of “unreality,” by means of which the sub-creator achieves a second goal of fairy-story, that of “Recovery,” the “regaining of a clear view” of reality, a vision freed from the possessiveness and appropriation of triteness and familiarity. In The Word Made Strange, however, John Milbank argues that this task which Tolkien assigns to fairy-story and sub-creation in our time peculiarly belongs to to theology: “In the past, practice already ‘made strange’, already felt again the authentic shock of the divine word by performing it anew, with variation…. Yet today it can feel as if it is the theologian alone (as in another cultural sphere the artist, or the poet) who must perform this task of redeeming estrangement…” (1). In rendering the world fantastical and so recovering it in its original, created authenticity, however, the theologian does not do anything that God himself does not do, preeminently in the Incarnation: it is “the theologian alone who must perpetuate that original making strange which was the divine assumption of human flesh, not to confirm it as it was, but to show it again as it surprisingly is.” The theologian, like the Tolkienian sub-creator, “makes strange,” for they do so in the image of the God who not only makes things strange, but in doing so makes and recovers himself as strange.

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9)

(Tomorrow’s post: Theology as Eucatastrophe.)

Could the Father or Spirit Have Become Incarnate?

In his Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Triune God, Robert Jenson critiques the Augustinian legacy in Western theology that tends to flatten out the differences between the respective agencies of the persons of the godhead. For Augustine, Jenson says, “there is no difference at all between the agencies of Father, Son, and Spirit. Either, he thinks, Father, Son, and Spirit must simply do the same thing, or simply different things” (and Augustine rejects the latter) (111). One of the most “disastrous” applications of this principle, in Jenson’s view, was Augustine’s teaching (in the words of Peter Lombard) that “As the Son was made man, so the Father or the Holy Spirit could have been and could be now” (Sent. 3.1.3). If the agency among the divine persons, in other words, is univocal among them, then it stands to reason that the act of incarnation cannot be proper or unique to any one of the persons, but must be shared by each. Against this view Jenson pits the “authentically Nicene analysis” of John of Damascus, who wrote that “It was the Son of God who became the son of man, so that his individuating property might be preserved. As he is Son of God he became a son of man…” (Expositio fidei 77.5-8). As Jenson summarizes the problem with the Augustinian position, the

supposition that there is no necessary connection between what differentiates the triune identities in God and the structure of God’s work in time bankrupts the doctrine of Trinity cognitively, for it detaches language about the triune identities from the only thing that made such language meaningful in the first place: the biblical narrative. (112)

My response: the conflict might also be viewed in terms of the theistic possibilism-actualism debate I have been developing here of late. On the Augustinian view, the “possibility of Incarnation” seems at some risk of becoming an abstract, uncreated possibility simply given to or for God, not simply as Creator, but now more specifically as a Trinity of divine persons. According to the doctrine of divine ideas, God’s will ranges over all the possibilities that are his with respect to creation. On the Augustinian view of the univocal agency of the divine persons, the classic Augustinian voluntarism and possibilism receive an even further, deeper, more problematic application, as the divine will is here allowed to range over possibilities that reference not only created being per se, but also how the persons of the Trinity in particular may (or may not) relate to that created being. (Consistent with this position is the later “personal properties” debate of the high and late Middle Ages, which was waged over whether it was the property of relation (the Dominican position) or the property of emanation (the Franciscan position) that was primarily responsible for constituting the persons in their distinct personhood. Either way, this is to posit a prior ontic framework that afterward makes the Trinitarian persons “possible.”)

As for the Damascene position tying the possibility of Incarnation to the Son only, while this conclusion could be drawn as the result of an even more limiting possibilism (i.e., the possibilities for Incarnation are still viewed as prior to and determinative of all Trinitarian action, as per the Augustinian position, it’s just that the range of available options have now been narrowed from three to one), the thrust of Jenson’s discussion, as I understand him, would seem to be to see the divine Son simply as God’s own possibility of Incarnation. If the Father or the Spirit are able to become Incarnate, the Son is that possibility for them. The possibility of Incarnation is not, accordingly, something that precedes or co-exists eternally with the persons of the Trinity, distinguishing them (or not, as the case may be) from each other; rather it is the prior actuality and givenness (and giftedness) of the divine persons for each other that afterwards determines the character of the possibility of their givenness for creation.

Divine Ideas: God looking at himself looking at creation

One of Anselm’s argument for the utter unity of the divine locutio centers on its status as the supreme truth and likeness, not of the creatures that are spoken through it, but of the divine being by which it is spoken (Monol. 31).[1] Anselm recognizes that, whereas the words we humans mentally speak are the very likeness and image of the extra-mental objects which are conceived through those mental words, the divine locutio cannot be a likeness or image of those things spoken through it, for otherwise the locutio would not be truly consubstantial with the divine being itself. Rather, they are the created things conceived and spoken by the divine locutio that are the likeness and image of it. For the divine locutio to be the supreme truth, it must be perfectly conformed to what supremely and unchangeably exists, namely the divine essence, and this means that that the locutio must be supremely one and unchanging.

Contained in this argument (whether consciously or not) is an implied critique of Augustine’s divine ideas, inasmuch as the latter’s plurality was argued to be necessary in order to account for the plurality of forms found amongst creatures. For Augustine, God must have a different divine idea by which he makes a horse from the idea he uses to make a man, for a horse is different from a man. From the Anselmian perspective, however, this is effectively to make the divine ideas as exemplar causes in the image and likeness of their created effects. Although Augustine argues that it would be irreligious to suppose that God (after the fashion of Plato’s demiurge) looks outside of himself for his plan for creation, there is a sense in which what Augustine has really done is merely relocate or specify the precise vantage point from which God does precisely that: the divine ideas, in short, are God’s looking at himself looking at his (possible) creatures. Given these contortions, it is little wonder that in the fourteenth century William of Ockham, wielding his razor (and in the name of Augustine) would seek to cut through the Augustinian knot by re-interpreting God’s ideas as simply God looking at his creatures. Once again, Anselm endeavors to avoid such later consequences of the Augustinian teaching by more perfectly affirming the divine locutio’s identity as the supreme truth, image, and likeness of the divine essence itself.


[1] Visser and Williams, Anselm, 125.