Academic journal article Theological Studies

Real Relations and the Divine: Issues in Thomas's Understanding of God's Relation to the World

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Real Relations and the Divine: Issues in Thomas's Understanding of God's Relation to the World

Article excerpt

Particularly Since Karl Rahner's work on the Trinity,(1) it has been common for theologians to point to the deficiencies of Thomas's treatment of the doctrine of God. The putative separation of the tractates De Deo Uno and De Deo Trino is seen as symptomatic of tendencies which have led, so it is diagnosed, to a general malaise which surrounds that doctrine in the modern context. As often one registers the scandal felt in these personalist times to the Thomistic notion that there is no real relationship between God and the world. Catherine LaCugna, in her recent work God For Us,(2) picks up on these themes, but she is not alone in her dissatisfaction with Thomas in this matter. A theologian as different from her as Donald Keefe makes a similar complaint in his Covenantal Theology.(3) LaCugna will conclude that Thomas is not salvageable in the modern context and elects to fashion a new relational metaphysics; Keefe concludes that Thomism, as it is currently practiced, is not salvageable but chooses instead to complete the Christian transformation of Aristotle begun by Thomas.(4)

When one discovers that Thomas argues that Jesus did not have a real relationship with his mother,(5) one is strongly tempted to conclude with Rahner, Keefe, and LaCugna that something has indeed gone awry with Thomas's thought. In the remarks which follow I would hope to do two things. First, it will be necessary to set out the Thomistic discussion of God's relationship to the world in enough detail to understand why he reaches the conclusions he does. Second, I will explore some of the resources present in Thomas for addressing some of the concerns raised by these theologians which could be integrated into a revitalized trinitarian theology. It will be concluded that many of these concerns can indeed be met, but only, as Keefe urges, by a further transformation of the underlying Aristotelian conceptuality in the light of the faith.


Three points will be considered here. The first is a clarification of what Thomas means when he distinguishes between real relations and relations of reason, and secondly what is implied about God's relation to the world. Finally, as Thomas modified his Aristotelian inheritance for the sake of the faith of the Church, that same faith can mandate other modifications.

Real Relations in Thomistic Thought

The medieval interest in relations was in part fueled by Augustine's understanding of the three Persons in terms of unchanging relations.(6) Augustine's own discussion was conducted against the backdrop of Aristotle's categories: the Arians were pressing the question whether fatherhood is said of God accidentally or substantially; one either compromised the unchangeability of God or concluded that the Son could not be God. Augustine escaped the dilemma by positing a third mode of predication--an unchanging relation that is, accordingly, not an accident. The formulation of Augustine's response in terms of Aristotle's categorical understanding of relations merely underscored the importance of the Philosopher in this matter in the 13th-century wake of his "entries" into Europe.

Augustine, the Neoplatonist, was unconcerned with the effect that such a maneuver would have on Aristotelian metaphysics. The medievals, who had accepted that metaphysics, did not have a similar luxury. One of the ongoing debates in the high Middle Ages was the precise ontological status of relations. Mark Henninger notes that "the participants in this discussion agreed that a relation's ontological status, whatever else it may be, must be explained in terms of its being in, `inhering in,' a subject."(7) Thus, categorical relations involving two different substances required the existence of corresponding accidents in both substances.

There were two focal points of discussion which forced the modification of Aristotle's fundamental categorical understanding. …

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