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Thursday, August 08, 2013


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Comment by Dennis Monokroussos:

There are at least three issues I’d like to address: the tetralemma about the Incarnation, the rationality of Ockham’s belief in the Incarnation in the face of the tetralemma and other challenges to orthodoxy, and the soteriological angle. The first will have to wait, as I’ll need to reacquaint myself with the historical, theological and philosophical fine points before I can say something worthy of this blog. I’m ready for a go on the other two topics, however.

My knowledge of Ockham’s life is inadequate to speak about his motivations and the nature and depth of his faith, though given his willingness to call Pope John XXII a heretic, and to do so either in his presence or at least in the same city and in response to an investigation commissioned by that Pope, shows remarkable courage and an impressive willingness to stand up for the truth as he saw it. Rather than discuss Ockham, I will offer an idealized 14th century Roman Catholic Christian to stand in for him, and ask what this person should do with the aporetic tetrad, given his background.

First then, our idealized believer – let’s call him Shockham – likely believed in the doctrines of Roman Catholicism from childhood. He trusted his parents, the clergy, and may have had some sort of properly basic belief in God. As he grew older, he may have been aware of arguments offered by the church for the existence of God and for the truth of the Roman church; he may also have had religious experiences of some sort – be they intense or “just” the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. All of this gives him strong reason to accept the church and Christianity, a combination of testimony (divine and human), argument and experience.

Now to the doctrine of the Incarnation. Long before Shockham bothered about the fine philosophical points of the Chalcedonian formula, he would have known that Jesus was both God and man and that this is a biblical teaching first and foremost. Hammering out the details was a job for later philosophical theologians, but the critical data comes from scripture. Jesus’ humanity is repeatedly affirmed in the New Testament, his divinity is too (though not as often), and the referent of those attributes always appears to be a single person.

By the time Shockham is a fully-fledged philosophical theologian, his faith in God, Christ and the church is deeply held and is rational on multiple levels. Now we come to at last to the fateful moment when he starts to dig into the questions you’re raising, and feels the tension. What should he do? In my view, given that he has a wide range of reasons to trust the Roman Catholic Church and therefore its teaching on the Incarnation, it seems to me eminently rational to tinker with Aristotelian metaphysics first, the faith second. For all his brilliance, Aristotle’s work doesn’t have the seal of divine inspiration and Shockham won’t have had any religious experiences authenticating the Metaphysics. Nor for all its brightness and plausibility does Aristotle’s teaching on substance have the halo of self-evidence about it. Denying or adjusting his views on primary substance is not equivalent to denying or tinkering with the law of non-contradiction. Shockham is faced with a bit of cognitive dissonance, and beliefs that are central to his noetic system will come before Aristotle’s teachings, which are peripheral by comparison.

Regarding the soteriological issue, what we think about Nestorius’s proper fate isn’t the issue; what Ockham (or Shockham) might have thought is. (And all the more so in evaluating his own fate – especially as someone coming after the relevant theological pronouncements had been made.) Creedal statements typically had a host of anathemas attached to those who rejected them; it wasn’t just a matter of rejecting dogma, but of repudiating the church’s authority as well.

The foregoing isn’t intended as an argument for the believer to be impervious to challenges like the ones you’ve raised. A theory can die a death of a thousand qualifications, and even core beliefs can sometimes change. But such an upheaval will take a lot of doing, and will and should require more than an interesting metaphysical challenge to one of the most complicated doctrines of the faith, one dealing with a unique situation. To take an analogy from physics, it isn’t so shocking that laws based on the behavior of “medium-sized dry goods” fail when we consider goings-on at the quantum level. I don’t mean this as an argument for a repudiation or modification of Aristotelian doctrine, of course, but it suggests that Ockham (or Shockham) is reacting rationally.

I have been thinking about the problem you posed in regard to distinguishing supposita and substances. Fundamentally, I think "substance" is being used in at least two senses. Aquinas remarks in the TP, q. 2, a. 6, "Now substance, as is plain from Metaph. v, 25, is taken in two ways: first, for essence or nature; secondly, for suppositum or hypostasis--hence the union having taken place in the hypostasis, is enough to show that it is not an accidental union, although the union did not take place in the nature." So his way of understanding substance indicates the distinction he might make between (1) nature/essence and (2) subsistence of that essence in a primary substance. I think his idea is that two essences, and in that sense "substances," are united in a complete subsistence akin to a singular being. It is a unique union, an example of which I don't think would exist in other purely natural cases, but I think the distinction between nature and subsistence is not purely theological. I'd tend to think it is akin to, if not the same as, the essence/existence distinction. Again, just to look to medieval usage where this arises, Aquinas distinguishes supposita in FP, q. 29, a. 2, to avoid precisely the kind of syllogism you cite (albeit in reference to the Trinity): "As we say "three persons" plurally in God, and "three subsistences," so the Greeks say "three hypostases." But because the word "substance," which, properly speaking, corresponds in meaning to "hypostasis," is used among us in an equivocal sense, since it sometimes means essence, and sometimes means hypostasis, in order to avoid any occasion of error, it was thought preferable to use "subsistence" for hypostasis, rather than "substance."

Thanks for the comment, Br. JD.

What is at issue is not the distinction between primary and secondary substance, but the distinction between primary substance and suppositum (hypostasis).

True, the distinction between nature and supposit is not purely theological; but that is not the question. The question concerns the difference between primary substance and supposit.

Further, the nature-supposit distinction is not the same as the essence-existence distinction. The former we find in Aristotle, but not the latter.


Thanks for the beautifully written comments. I agree with you that Schockham is not being unreasonable, but then neither is the person who rejects the Incarnation as incoherent.

>>For all his brilliance, Aristotle’s work doesn’t have the seal of divine inspiration and Shockham won’t have had any religious experiences authenticating the Metaphysics.<<

While Schockham had no religious experiences authenticating the work of philosophus as Aquinas referred to Aristotle, S. presumably did have various philosophical experiences that authenticated it for him.

We can put it this way: Aristotle does not speak with divine authority, nor does he claim to; the Roman church claims to speak with divine authority (on matters of faith and morals, not all matters). But last time I checked, you were a Protestant. Of course, since last we talked some years ago you may have 'swum the Tiber.' If you are still a Protestant, do you accept the Roman church's teaching authority as divinely underwritten? Do you accept Transubstantiation, Immaculate Conception, Papal Infallibility, etc.?

The compliment is appreciated, Bill. I'm pleased that you agree with me about Shockham's reasonableness, but I'm not sure we understand this in the same way. My position is not that Shockham is justified in accepting the doctrine of the Incarnation in spite of its incoherence in all extant philosophical formulations. Rather, I argue that his independent sources of justification for belief in the doctrine as expressed by the Chalcedonian formula justifies his tweaking the concept of a supposit. That tweaked concept is logically coherent, and it underwrites an understanding of the Incarnation that is also coherent.

If the foregoing is correct and you're granting all of this on Shockham's behalf, then it seems that you should grant that the (doctrine of the) Incarnation is coherent (bracketing other putative problems). The dialectic here seems relevantly similar to that in the logical problem of evil. Even if someone is an atheist and rejects libertarian free will, he should still acknowledge that the Free Will Defense (FWD) proves that the concept of an all-good and all-powerful God is not rendered incoherent by the existence of evil per se. Correspondingly, one might reject the theological sources for belief in the Incarnation and think there aren’t any supposita that aren’t subtances.

One might even draw a further parallel: a determinist might think that the compatibilist understanding of free will is superior to the libertarian’s, just as the advocate of Aristotle’s conception of suppositum will prefer his definition to Ockham’s. Even so, the compatibilist ought to grant the success of the FWD, and do so even if he’s a physicalist and thinks the appeal to libertarian freedom is ad hoc. Likewise for the Aristotelian with the coherence of the Incarnation.

With respect to my own beliefs, I'm still a Protestant and cannot make appeal to the infallible pronouncement of the Roman Catholic magisterium. (Despite this, many Protestants accept the first seven ecumenical councils.) If that were a necessary condition for justified belief in the Incarnation I would be in trouble, but I don't believe it is. All Shockham's other sources are available to me as well, and I believe they suffice.


I think we agree on this: Nothing is rationally acceptable if it is, or entails, a narrowly-logical contradiction. But my present concern is not with whether Trinity, Incarnation, Transubstantiation, etc. are logically contradictory, but with the murkier and more difficult question of whether the 'tweaking' you mention amounts to an ad hoc patch job as opposed to a fruitful enriching of one's general ontology.

The 'evil' and 'freedom' parallels would be worth exploring.

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