Aquinas: Words for God

This next section of the Summa (1a.27-43) is focused on the Trinity, so we won’t necessarily see a lot from it. I’ll touch on a couple points here and there, but currently Trinitarian theology isn’t very interesting to me, so we’re basically going to skip it. That is, I’m not going to write about it here – I’m still reading it, but – frankly I just don’t have a lot to say about it. There are a couple of curious little side points being made though, so we’ll chat about them instead. The first one has to do with the language we use to talk about God.

In 1a.29.3, Aquinas asks whether we should use the word ‘person’ in reference to God – that is, can we say that there are three persons in the Trinity? His first argument is this:

“It seems that the word ‘person’ should not be used of God. For Dionysius says, ‘No one should ever dare to say or think about the hidden divinity, which surpasses all substances, anything other than what we find formulated by God in the sacred Scriptures.’ Now we do not find the term ‘person’ in the holy text of the Old or New Testaments. Therefore ‘person’ should not be used of God.”

We’ve talked about Dionysius (or Pseudo-Dionysius) before, and you can find those posts here. For now, the basic point is that you shouldn’t be talking about God in terms other than those set forth by God. It seems pretty reasonable as an idea. We’ve already talked about Aquinas’s argument that human language is generally inappropriate for talking about God – the basic idea is that human language doesn’t fully capture everything of God, and we need to be aware of the gaps between the human words and the eternity of God when we talk about God. Here the argument is taken a step further. Aquinas, following Dionysius, is suggesting that you shouldn’t describe God using words that aren’t explicitly used in the Bible. It’s not enough to say that God is implicitly described as a person in the Bible – if the actual word doesn’t turn up, you shouldn’t use it.

But that’s only the initial argument. Aquinas goes on to suggest that actually, this is a step too far after all. He begins his rebuttal by citing the point that we already mentioned: “nevertheless it [the word ‘person’] is not used in exactly the same sense of God as of creatures but in a higher sense, as are other words by which we name creatures, as was explained elsewhere when we discussed the naming of God.” As long as we understand that we’re stretching the words when we apply them to God, it’s not that bad – we understand that God’s not a person in the you and me sense of the word.

Aquinas then goes on to suggest that although the word ‘person’ is not used in reference to God, the word’s general meaning is associated with Him, so it’s probably fine. Further, he notes, if you can only speak about God in the language of the Old and New Testament, then we wouldn’t be able to speak about God in English. We’d only be able to use Hebrew and Aramaic and so on. Well, technically Aquinas is writing in Latin, so he’s thinking of Latin rather than English, but the point stands. Either the words are important, or what they mean is important. If it’s the first, we should only read the Bible in Hebrew. If it’s the second, translations are fine and we can probably talk about God as a person, given that the meaning is implicit already in the text.

It’s worth noting here, by the way, that if we can’t use words that aren’t in the Bible, we can’t talk about the Trinity. This is the only bit of Trinitarian theology you’re getting out of me. Basically, the term ‘Trinity’ is never used in the Bible. There’s also not a fully articulated Trinitarian theology. The full articulations come later, in the face of different controversies around the nature of Jesus and so on. There are hints in the Bible – most famously Matthew 28:19, where Jesus tells his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” But for the most part, scholars would agree that Trinitarian theology in the Bible is largely subterranean (if indeed it is truly there at all).

So when Aquinas says that we can refer to God as a ‘person’, even though the Bible doesn’t use that term, he’s saying that we can articulate the ideas in the Bible rather than just strictly using the terms we find there. This might seem obvious, but it’s a super important issue for talking about the Trinity. If we don’t have this rule, the Trinity is under serious siege. Curiously, Aquinas then goes on to say this:

“We have to look for new words about God which express the old faith because we have to argue with heretics.” 

I’m not sure, but you have to wonder whether Aquinas is thinking about all the arguments about the Trinity that’ve gone on over the previous few hundred years. There’s a pretty clear parallel here: the basic argument is that Christians haven’t ‘invented’ new ideas about the Trinity – rather they’ve just found new ways of articulating the same doctrine in order to rebut different types of heresy. There’s been no real change in the doctrine, Aquinas would suggest – just changes in the ways we articulate it. To some degree the argument makes sense. People are going to talk about God in different ways to emphasise the relevant issues of the period. People talk about the question of God’s goodness – that’s a problem that’s important to us today. Why do bad things happen to good people? Of course, that’s a question with some longevity, so maybe it’s a bad example. But, say, issues around environmentalism. What’s the relationship between God and the environment? That’s a more topical issue – and obviously there’s a great many people writing books about it today. Those people tease out ideas implicit in the Bible. They use terms that aren’t necessarily in the original text, reshaping our understanding of God by foregrounding and minimising specific aspects. And according to Aquinas, it’s all just a normal part of how we do business as Christians.

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