Richard Cross’s 1999 Duns Scotus in the Great Medieval Thinkers series is an excellent, concise introduction to this most controverted of medieval theologians. It’s dense, so is its subject. Cross spends a late chapter dealing with some central themes in Scotus’s sacramental theology – his theory of sacramental causality, his view of sacramental grace and sacramental character, and his views on the Eucharist and transubstantiation.
Scotus operates with the general prmise that “humanity has always needed signs of God’s activity.” In the new covenant, since “humanity is in its closest state to beatitude,” it has the most perfect sacraments, which “signify most appropriately the grace God confers through them. The seven sacraments “correspond supernaturally to the seven requirements of natural life, individual and social: birth, nutrition, physical exercise, healing after illness, preparation for death, procreation, arid the creation of spiritual leaders” (135).
God confers grace through sacraments, but how? Scotus is not happy with Thomas’s explanation. Against Bonaventure’s occasionalist account of sacramental causation, Thomas insists that “God uses the sacraments in the process of imparting grace. The sacraments have some sort of causal role; they are instrumental causes of grace. Aquinas argues that, if Bonaventure’s view is correct, the sacraments are no more than signs of grace; they do not in any sense convey grace” (136). Scotus doesn’t buy this. He shares some common ground with Thomas concerning causation in general: “Scotus agrees with Aquinas that agents have casual powers. He also agrees with Aquinas that instrumental causes do not have intrinsic causal powers. Just like Aquinas, he believes that the causal powers in virtue of which an instrumental cause has a role in the production of an effect are caused in it by the motion of the principal agent” (136-7_).
For Scotus, though, Thomas confuses natural and supernatural causality. He argues that “it would be logically contradictory that a material object have a supernatural causal power. So not even God could give such an object a supernatural power. The reason is that a supernatural form cannot be extended to exist throughout a material agent; and any causal power of a material object must be so extended. Worse still, a sacrament is an aggregate of words, substances, and actions, and so in any case is not the sort of thing that could be an agent, or in which any sort of casual power could inhere” (137). He insists that “no creature can be an instrumental cause of a supernatural effect” and that since “a sacrament is a temporally extended aggregate—it takes time to say all the required words” and “the infusion of grace by God is instantaneous,” it is impossible for a “temporally extended aggregate” to be “the cause of an instantaneous action” (137).
Since Thomas’s view is wrong, Bonaventure’s occasionalism must be correct: “Scotus thus argues that a sacrament is a non-causal ‘necessitating condition.’ It does not cause God’s action – after all, it has no causal powers, intrinsic or instrumental, in virtue of which it could bring about a divine action. God has decided, however, that whenever a sacrament is received, he will give the appropriate supernatural gift.” Scotus advocates a covenant view of sacramental causation, according to which God made a pactio with the church to do certain things when the sacramental conditions are met. Thus Scotus doesn’t deny the reliability of grace in the sacraments, since “God’s covenant guarantees sacramental reliability” (137). The words of the mass don’t convert bread and wine to body and blood. The ritual actions and words of the mass instead provide the conditions of God’s action, which is the product (in Scotus’s words) of “the ordering of God making a covenant with the Church” (137).
Scotus’s occasionalist view requires a non-Thomist account of the sacraments of the old law. According to Thomas, old covenant ceremonies worked because they were occasions of grace. Scotus thinks that’s also true of new covenant sacraments, and yet he wants to protect the distinction of old and new. He locates the difference not in the mechanics of causation but in the relation of old and new to Christ’s life and death, which is the meritorious cause of the efficacy of both old and new sacraments. Old covenant sacraments were efficacious by virtue of the foreseen merits of Christ, but the new covenant sacraments are more powerful because they take their virtue from the actual, accomplished merits of Christ (138).
Scotus does score some points against Thomas: Once the nature/supernature distinction is made, it is not clear how a natural thing or action (water poured) can become the cause of a supernatural effect: Can the effect so transcend the cause? Once he has dispensed with instrumental causality, Scotus has difficulty explaining why these particular things and actions are occasions for God’s action. Sacraments could be anything at all. It’s the king and the lead coin: The lead coin has value only because of the fiat of the king. Surely, though, we want to say that the materials of the sacrament are more integrated into the sacramental event than that.
There are, however, alternatives to both Thomist and Scotist accounts, which begin with a rejection of the nature/supernature dualism that shapes both.
“Natural” things have properties because God gave them these properties; water is watery. Cultural products have properties because of the properties of the things of which they are made and because of the properties released and realized by human making and remaking. These are neither natural nor supernatural in any strict sense; natural properties and powers are what they are because of a “supernatural” gift from the Creator. God chose the things He did for sacraments because they possessed properties suitable to the things He aimed to accomplish in the sacraments. It is not arbitrary that baptism is by water, or that the Eucharist is a meal. But these products of nature and culture accomplish what they accomplish in the church because of the properties or effects they have. Water washes, but it doesn’t graft us into Christ by virtue of its wateriness. Scotus is right to this extent: Sacramental causality is covenant causality; baptism accomplishes what it does not because of the properties of water as such (but not against the properties of water as such either); baptism does what it does because God has designated this as the rite of engrafting into the body of His Son. God accomplishes what baptism accomplishes, but God accomplishes what water accomplishes too. This doesn’t trade sacramental occasionalism for universal occasionalism; it’s concursus. God made things that have certain properties, and He works in and with those things with those properties to bring about effects. Secondary causes are real, but they are established (as the Westminster Confession says) by the sovereign action of God who is always active in everything everywhere.
Scotus (and many other medieval theologians) are also right to stress that the sacrament is a temporally extended aggregate of materials, words, and actions, irreducible to a duality of signum and res. So we are actually distorting things to ask how a natural substance like water can accomplish what baptism is said to accomplish. The question is: How does the ritual action of water baptism do what baptism does? And the answer again is covenantal: God has designated these actions with this substance to do this, and it does it because God is active in the whole event to do what He has promised, even as He is active in every event. This isn’t a natural thing accomplishing a supernatural effect. Or, it’s a way of universalizing that paradigm, because the fact that water washes away dirt is itself a miracle.