03.10.05, Smith, Thomas Aquinas' Trinitarian Theology

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Harm Goris

The Medieval Review baj9928.0310.005


Smith, Timothy L.. Thomas Aquinas' Trinitarian Theology: A Study in Theological Method. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2003. Pp. xiii, 258. ISBN: 0813210976.

Reviewed by:
Harm Goris
Katholieke Theologische Universiteit

Karl Rahner's diagnosis in the 1960s that the doctrine of the Trinity had become virtually otiose in the religious life of Western Christians touched an open nerve in academic theology. Ever since, there has been a continuous flow of studies offering new interpretations of the doctrine and assessing its historical developments in classical theology. The number of publications has grown so rapidly that recently David Cunningham even complained that there is not so much a "renaissance" as a "bandwagon" in trinitarian theology (cf. his These Three Are One: The Practice of Trinitarian Theology, Oxford, 1998, p. 19). In most of these studies, Thomas Aquinas is identified as one of theologians responsible for the "exile of the Trinity" (Bruno Forte) in Western theology. One would, therefore, welcome an alternative reading of Aquinas that critically examines this somewhat commonplace judgment of his position. According to the cover text, Thomas Aquinas' Trinitarian Theology promises to do so, but in the end, I think, it succeeds only in fulfilling half of the promise.

The present study is a revision of the dissertation the author wrote a few years ago under the direction of Ralph McInerny (Univ. of Notre Dame). The first chapter gives a description of the problems regarding the systematic structure and context of the doctrine of God in the Summa Theologiae. Two main issues are pointed out (25). The first one is the relation between Aquinas' discussions of the divine essence (S.Th. Ia qq. 2-26) and of the distinction of the Persons (qq. 27-43) and the second one concerns the relevance the trinitarian doctrine has for the whole of Aquinas' theology. With regard to the former, Smith adopts the criticisms that recently have been levelled at the common dichotomy between the Latin tradition with its alleged priority of a 'metaphysical' view on the one divine essence, and the Greek approach, which would favour the distinction of the divine Persons within the history of salvation. Furthermore, Smith convincingly traces the origin of the neoscholastics' division between what they labeled 'De Deo Uno' (qq. 2-26) and 'De Deo Trino' (qq. 27-43) back to Cajetan. It may be a coincidence, but in the early 1960s, McInerny blamed Cajetan for distorting Aquinas' view on analogy into a metaphysical doctrine. Now his student holds Cajetan also responsible for separating Aquinas' consideration of the divine essence -- interpreted by Cajetan as an absolute subsistent entity -- from the discussion of the divine Persons, thereby making the latter irrelevant for the rest of Aquinas' theology.

In the second chapter, Smith argues for the internal coherence between qq. 2-26 and qq. 27-43 by meticulous analyses of the texts. Both text sections, he says, have one and the same subject: the one divine nature in three Persons, "for the one divine essence is not other than the three Persons" (59). According to Smith, Aquinas does not proceed by linear, demonstrative argumentation, but follows a method he characterizes as "topical" (67). That is to say, Aquinas' trinitarian theology is "exegetical" (80, 150) and organized by pedagogical motives (101). It is not speculation on or explanation of God's being, but a reflection upon the words of Scripture, resulting in a meaningful communication of religious truths (136) and rules for correct speech (162, note 7). Like many other present-day commentators, Smith stresses the linguistic and apophatic character of Aquinas' theology.

The third chapter deals mainly with the theory of appropriations, i.e. the practice of attributing essential names to one of the divine Persons. The author opposes Aquinas' view against those of Abelard, Anselm and Albert the Great, all of whom seem to use appropriation as a means to a rational demonstration of the Trinity of Persons. Aquinas, however, asserts that the Trinity is exclusively known by revelation, not by logical argumentation. Appropriation is only meant to elucidate what is already known by revelation, and it serves to stress the dissimilarity between God and creatures. Power, e.g., is attributed to the Father, because earthly fathers are usually weak because of their age. Appropriation, Smith claims, "is simply another way of denying the (creaturely) manner of signifying of the personal names" (135).

The discussion of the linguistic (grammatical) peculiarities of Aquinas' theology is continued in the fourth chapter, focusing on the modus significandi. Smith denies that the tradition of speculative grammar, which stressed the equivalence of the modes of signifying, of understanding, and of being, had a major influence on Aquinas. Apart from textual and historical arguments, Smith sees a fatal theological problem if one assumes such an equivalence in Aquinas' theology. For, as Aquinas denies the accuracy of the mode of signifying in our God-talk, this would imply a complete relativism in theological language (163-4, 194, 202-3). Only if we can separate what is being signified (res significata) from the mode of signifying, then inaccuracies in the latter do not undermine the truthfulness of our speech (203).

The final chapter pursues the topic how human language may signify divine reality. It takes the form of a discussion on whom Aquinas has in mind when he refers to "others" (alii), who claim that divine names only signify God's causality, not his substance (cf. S.Th. Ia q. 13 a. 2). Smith argues that it is Albert the Great. Albert's interpretation of Pseudo-Dionysius' negative theology amounts to a denial of "any real possibility of knowing and naming God per se" (218), while for Aquinas it only implies the imperfection of human language, while preserving its meaningfulness and truthfulness.

I think that Smith has conclusively shown that Aquinas' discussions of the one divine essence and of the three divine Persons constitute a unity. However, the more pressing question about the relevance of the Trinity for the whole of theology and for the lives of the faithful, remains largely unanswered. There may be two reasons for this. Firstly, Smith focuses on qu. 39 of the prima pars, which deals directly with the relation between the Persons and the divine essence. But I would like to argue that qu. 43, on the divine missions, is not merely the end but the apex of Aquinas' discussion of the triune God and the pivot between theologia and oikonomia, so that it offers a lead for a Thomistic reading of Rahner's maxim 'the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity and vice versa'. I don't think that, unlike Augustine, Aquinas "separated the issue of the missions" (104). His discussion of the Trinity leads up to the issue of the divine missions. If one bears in mind the invisible mission of the Spirit in the gift of sanctifying grace (qu. 43, art. 3 and 7), one would also come to a different judgment on the Spirit's proper names 'Gift' and 'Love' than Smith, who states that these names have "only negligible semantic import" (107). Smith correctly stresses that for Aquinas the Trinity is only known by revelation, and that such knowledge is necessary for us for two reasons: to have a right judgment about creation and about salvation (qu. 32 art. 1, ad 3). But, Aquinas adds, the latter reason is principalius. This, I think, calls for a more thorough reflection on the relation between theologia and oikonomia, the immanent and the economic Trinity, in Aquinas than the scattered remarks in Smith's book (e.g. 77-8 note 86, 132 note 70).

A second reason why, in my opinion, Smith fails to show the theological relevance of the doctrine of the Trinity is his interpretation of the rule that the divine works ad extra are one. If it means that all divine activity in the world is exclusively attributed to the one divine essence, it would indeed make the distinction of the Persons completely irrelevant to human beings. Smith seems to apply the rule in this sense. Only in one passage at the end of the second chapter (108), he states that it "does not deny that one divine Person acts in a peculiar way [...] [It] denies that such acts are done without the other two and that they offer any insight into the proper identity of any one of the divine Persons." This, I think, is very well formulated. It also gives the interesting suggestion that Aquinas' discussion of the immanent Trinity in qq. 27-43 is not meant as a description of how the divine being is structured, but as a reflection on the conditions of possibility of the history of salvation. It is remarkable that on the very same page 108, Smith also mentions the mission of the Spirit in the gift of grace as corresponding to the proper name of 'Gift.' However, these remarks do not have a substantial bearing on the whole of his book. One almost gets the impression that this page was written by a different hand.

I have also some difficulty with the way Smith renders Aquinas' view on the linguistic status of human God-talk. Regarding the historical context, Smith focuses exclusively on the tradition of speculative grammar and completely ignores terminist logic, the influence of which on Aquinas is generally acknowledged. It is true that the modi significandi are the hallmark of speculative grammar, but they were also discussed by terminist logicians, in particular by Peter of Spain. Furthermore, that Aquinas does not adopt the modist equivalence of the modes of signifying, understanding and being, is already clear from his frequent appeals to the rule that 'everything is received/known according to the mode of the receiver/knower', which is not a Pseudo-Dionysian precept as Smith states (222), but goes back to Iamblichus and Boethius. From a systematic viewpoint, Smith says that the mode of signifying can be "eliminated" (136), "separated" (142, 203) or "stripped away" (143) from the thing signified in theological language (although he seems to say the opposite on p. 148). This seems to me a fundamental distortion of Aquinas' view. The mode of signifying is inextricably tied up with our speech, not only in the matter of syntax like abstract and concrete nouns, on which Smith focuses, but also semantically, with regard to the conceptual content. Wisdom/wise, justice/just, power/powerful are really distinct perfections in creatures, but they exist in God as one. Because of the very structure of our language, this unity cannot be expressed anymore.

In chapter five, Smith argues that Aquinas has Albert the Great in mind when he rejects the opinion that divine names only express God's causality. I don't think Smith has a strong case here. Firstly, because Albert states clearly that God is substantially (secundum substantiam) life and wisdom and the like (Super Dionysium, c. 1, par. 55. Cologne ed., p. 35; cf. "illud ipsum quod in eo est vere et absolute quantum ad rem significatam", c. 1, par. 3, p. 2). Our knowledge of God starts with his effects, but does not end there (ibid. c. 2, par. 56, p. 81). Secondly, like Albert, also Aquinas stresses the via causalitatis in our knowledge of God: cf. S.Th. Ia. qu. 12 art. 13. Thirdly, when Albert -- or Aquinas-- states that who only know of God quia est and not quid est, this is not to be understood as if we only know that God exists. It means that we do not have quidditative knowledge of God's essence, which could be expressed in a proper definition, but that we can form true judgments like 'God is wise' or 'God is good' (Albert, Super Dionysium, c. 2 par. 55, p. 80; cf. Aquinas, In De Trin. qu. 1, art. 2, resp: "Et ideo non possumus in statu viae pertingere ad cognoscendum de ipso nisi quia est"). Fourthly, according to Smith, divine predication becomes equivocal when Albert says that the thing signified exceeds the signification of the name. Smith wants the excess to refer only to our mode of signifying, not to "signification per se" (215). I have already argued that the two cannot be separated. Moreover, also Aquinas says that, when a word like 'wise' is predicated of God, it exceeds the signification (significatio and not only the mode of signifying) of the name (S.Th. Ia qu. 13, art. 5).

I would like to take issue with Smith about many more minor topics. E.g. I don't think that the meaning of the statement 'God is eternal' "can be easily if not perfectly grasped" (81-2). When Aquinas talks about a 'natural' procession of the Son, there is a specific Patristic, anti-Arian tradition in the background of this expression, not a contrast with "an unnatural and even temporal act of will" (84). Aquinas denies that 'Word' can signify the divine being (108): when taken properly, it is a personal name, and in no way an essential name (S.Th. Ia qu. 34 art. 1). Absence of materiality does not demonstrate divine simplicity (138), for angels and human souls are multiplied by their very forms.

To conclude my criticisms: there are too many errors in this book. Misspellings in Latin quotations, inaccurate translations (e.g. "a certain contingent respect to some related thing" as translation of "respectum quodammodo contingentem ipsam rem relatam", p. 93), and misspellings of names (my distinguished colleague is called Maarten Hoenen, not Hönen; Dell Hymes, not Hayes, edited Studies in the History of Linguistics; it is Eberhard Jüngel, not Jungel). Smith seems to confuse Anselm of Laon with Anselm of Canterbury (125). A proper name is not "one signifying a nature," but one signifying an individual (41, note 95). Aquinas does not say that 'God' properly supposits for the Persons, but that 'God' can (possit) properly supposit for the Persons. The reference to Park's recent study (173, note 39) is completely off the mark as Park discusses terminist logic and not speculative grammar in the pages Smith refers to. Also the reference to Park's citation of De Modalibus (173 note 41) is irrelevant, because this work has nothing to do with the modes of signifying, but deals with the modal terms 'necessary' and '(im-)possible.' Smith talks a few times about 'verb' where clearly the copula is meant (178). In particular the first two chapters offer some valuable insights, but the overall impression this study gives to me is that it is not well balanced and thought-out.

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Harm Goris

Katholieke Theologische Universiteit