Is God different than we are?: The ontological controversy

Is God different than we are?: The ontological controversy August 9, 2013

Consider this quote from Timothy George, in our recent Christianity without the Atonement post:

The problem comes when we use an anthropopathic term like “wrath” and apply it univocally to the God of eternity. Before long, we have constructed “a god who looks like me,” to use the title of a recent book of feminist theology.  Then caricatures of divine wrath proliferate:  God having a temper tantrum or acting like a big bully who needs to be “appeased” before he can forgive or, as is often alleged with reference to the atonement, practicing cosmic child abuse.

Note the word “univocally.”  This alludes to a historically important theological issue having to do with ontology, or the nature of being, as it applies to God.  The “univocal” position is that God is a being in the same way we are beings.  The “analogy of being” position is that only God has being in its fullness, while we and the whole creation exist in a related but qualitatively lesser way than He does.

Now this may seem like an arcane issue, but–as I will try to explain,with some help, after the jump–it is extraordinarily important, having to do with the Catholic critique of Protestantism, the nature of the Sacraments, the relationship between Christianity and science, the rise of secularism, and the very way we think about God.  Roman Catholic apologist Brad Gregory has written a book entitled The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, in which he argues that the Protestant Reformation unintentionally led to the Enlightenment, modernity, secularism, and all our woes.  A major reason:  the triumph of “univocal” ontology, which he associates with Protestantism.

Below, Lutheran theologian  Jack Kilcrease discusses Gregory’s argument and the ontological controversy.  He shows that, in fact, the Reformers believed in the analogy of being, as did their heirs (not just Martin Luther but Francis Pieper!).  The univocal position came mostly from the Catholic side.  It did win out, though, making possible the arguments of the “new atheists” as well as new theologians who are saying things like the doctrine of the atonement–God’s sacrifice of His Son–would be an act of cosmic child abuse.   (I would add that although the Calvinists might have kept the analogy of being, their arguments that the Body of Christ can’t be on the altar because it’s up in Heaven with God surely reflects some univocal assumptions.  I suspect that the downplaying of the Sacraments contributed to the shift.)  Recovering the sense that God is a qualitatively different kind of being than we are is an important theological task.   What are some other implications of the “analogy of being”?   What other issues does it clarify?

From Jack Kilcrease at his Theologia Crucis blog:

In this present blog post I’d like focus on the issue of the univocity of being, present in Gregory’s first chapter.  According to Gregory, prior to Duns Scotus, Christian theologian were generally followers of the idea of the analogy of being, i.e., the idea that God is supremely and really being itself, whereas creatures are analogically or derivatively beings.  As we’ve discussed in previous blog posts, this way of speaking about God grows out of Augustine’s appropriation of the idea of divine simplicity, and although it was not shared by Eastern theologians (who distinguished between essence and energies as a means of accomplishing the same task) it basically did form for western theology a way of relating God and his creatures, and to account for the possibility of critically-realistic propositional statement about God.

According to Gregory, Duns Scotus wrecked everything with the doctrine of the univocity of being, whereby he claimed that “being” was a reality that encompassed both God and creatures and therefore statements about God and creatures (“God is good” “creatures are good”) meant exactly the same thing.

This book seems to largely assume that De Lubac, Milbank, and (indirectly) Gilson’s understanding of how the evolution of Christian thought occurred in the later Middle Ages is historically accurate. In my humble opinion, this is not correct. As Heiko Oberman and Steven Ozment have pointed out, part of the difficulty with this narrative is that the claim of a fall from the purity of Thomistic analogy to Nominalist nihilism and univocity is largely fictional, and something of an outgrowth of the ideological concerns of the Neo-Thomistic revival. Since for the Manual Theologians and their compatriots Thomism was the cream of western Christian thought, anything that came after it (including the Nominalists and Reformers) was a falling away from its perfection. This of course one of the reasons that Oberman called his book The Harvest of Medieval Theology since he wanted to emphasize that the thought of the later Middle Ages was not a falling away from the primal glory of Thomism, but in many respects a fulfillment of the trajectory of earlier trends.

Moreover, Richard Cross (who is probably the foremost English speaking scholar of Scotus- and a colleague of Gregory’s at Notre Dame!!!) has pointed out that Milbank and the Radical Orthodox (and Balthasar in the fourth volume of The Glory of the Lord before them) have essentially misread Scotus on the issue of univocity (See his very helpful article directed against Milbank here:,+John+Milbank,+Duns+Scotus&hl=en&sa=X&ei=fg4BUuDGF47OyAHuu4GoDg&ved=0CDQQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=Richard%20Cross%2C%20John%20Milbank%2C%20Duns%20Scotus&f=false. Scotus’ point was not that God and creatures were all in the same ontological category (he knew better!- he agreed with Aquinas that God was “Goodness” and “Wisdom” itself and creatures were only so derivatively). Though the whole reasoning process is complex, basically Scotus’s point was about language. Scotus thought that analogy made language about God merely equivocal. If a word is “like” God, but also somehow infinitely distinct from God, then it isn’t really saying much of anything other than a sort of “yes and no.”  Hence, for Scotus, univocity is about language and isn’t really about ontology at all. Scotus wanted clear, unequivocal propositional language about God (incidentally this is also why Carl F. Henry favored univocity!)- he didn’t believe that God and creatures were in the same ontological category. Milbank has tried to resist Cross on this point, but he’s really not the expert that Cross is on Scotus. Occam also knew that there was an infinite distinction between divine reality and created reality. He said that there was “no proportion” between divinity and the created being.

The person many intellectual historians consider the real creator of the idea of the univocity of being in its proper sense of the term (that is, God and creatures being in the same general category of being) would be Francisco Suarez, who quite unashamedly states that there are two sorts of being, infinite and finite (interestingly enough, he did so under the guise of trying to interpret Thomas’ analogy!). That being said, Suarez is not the only ontological game in town in the early modern period. Also, in spite of the assumption of Milbank, almost no one bought into the univocity of being. In the later Middle Ages and the early modern period, there were all sorts of different theological traditions (Thomism obvious still being a live option). Moreover, although the Reformers didn’t really talk much about the analogy of being (Luther does actually use the idea in the Heidelberg Disputation and in the Genesis commentary as part of a natural theology argument for God’s existence) the Protestant Scholastics overwhelming did accepted it. I was recently speaking with Richard Muller, and he has a article coming out in Renaissance Review where he surveys 20 different Reformed Protestant scholastic authors, 18 of which reject the univocity of being in favor of the analogy of being. The Lutheran scholastics (within my own tradition) are the same way. Quenstedt thoroughly rejects univocity, as does Hollaz, in favor of analogy. Gerhard rejects both univocity and analogy, and then in practice thinks in terms of analogy. The theological text book of my denomination (LCMS), Francis Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics, endorses analogy, and (again!) rejects univocity.

Gregory accounts for none of this data, and pretty much just assumes that Milbank is right about the horrible effects of univocity, even though it’s demonstrable that Scotus’ univocity wasn’t really an ontological claim (which is the only way that Milbank’s argument could work) and in any case it was believed in by almost no one .  In spite of these facts, Gregory claims that most of the new university created in the later Middle Ages taught univocity.  This is an odd claim insofar as he simply asserts this and gives no data to support it (statistical or otherwise).  It also incongruous with the fact that late Medieval thought was extremely diverse, with different university possessing several different faculties in many cases (Wittenberg had three different traditions represented!).

So, what does this have to do with the Reformation?  According to Gregory, a couple of things.  First, the Reformers accepted univocity and spread the poison.  Of course this is utterly false, and in fact Gregory is hard pressed to quote any of the Reformers teaching univocity (which is why he never does!).  The best he can come up with is a tortured argument about how Zwingli’s rejection of the real presence was based on univocity (I find it hard to follow the argument, frankly).  Of course, there is no real examination of Zwingli own arguments here.  Moreover, if rejection of the real presence is based on univocity, why then did Ratramus, Gottschalk, and Berengar reject it (hundreds of years earlier!), when they lack Duns Scotus as an intellect resource?  Mysterious indeed!

In any case, the Reformation created endless theological debates between Catholics and Protestants through the latter’s doctrine of Sola Scriptura.  This had two effects: First, since Protestants attacked Aristotle, the Catholic Church was forced to double down on his philosophy (actually, only the younger Luther really attacked Aristotle, along with Humanists and some other early Reformers.  Melanchthon later made Aristotle the basis of teaching at Wittenberg and the Lutheran scholastics followed him.  Also, the Reformed scholastics followed a similar trajectory).  Because of this, the Catholic Church placed itself in the position where it would have to condemn Galileo (for deviating from Aristotle) and therefore look anti-Scientific to secular folk (hence, even the Galileo trial is Martin Luther’s fault!).  This drove away secular intellectuals.  Secondly, since Catholics and Protestant were fighting with each other, intellectuals had to look for other means of finding knowledge apart from theology- that is, stuff that they could all agree on as either Protestant or Catholic (math works even when you don’t believe in Transubstantiation).  They therefore in the 17th century increasingly turned to math and science (all very true!).  Since in the new scientific rationalism, thinkers assumed univocity, wherein God became a being among beings, and a cause among causes, they quickly either identified God with being in general and became either Atheists or Pantheists (Spinoza, as I have pointed out in the past could be read either way!), or Deists (God is the one, original cause- but still a cause among causes!).  This explains the silliness of the contemporary “New Atheists” who merrily believe that they’ve destroyed God by making naturalistic explanation of phenomenon.  If one assumes the classical Christian understanding of God’s transcendence and active presence in and through his creation hidden under every cause, this makes little sense.  It only makes sense if one has a crude univocal understanding of God as a cause like every other!  Having delineated an explanation of every cause in the created order, one no longer finds a place for God.  He therefore becomes unnecessary as a casual agent, and therefore Atheism is the only logical option (Dawkins frequently follows this silly line of reasoning, showing he knows nothing about classical Christian theism).

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