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Boethius, Univocity, and Modern Trinitarian Thought

In a recent blog post, Peter Leithart reflects on the concept of “person” in relation to the Trinity. He takes as his starting point the classic definition given by Boethius: a person is an individual substance of a rational nature, and from this argues that the divine persons of the Trinity, being persons, are also individual substances of a rational nature. This, Dr. Leithart points out, tends towards social Trinitarianism, the idea that each person of the Trinity is its own distinct center of consciousness. For Leithart this is something of an analytic truth (in spirit, at any rate) since the conclusion of social Trinitarianism is contained within the Boethian definition:

As individual substances of rational nature, their self-consciousness is individuated, and the “contents” of self-consciousness must be to this extent distinct. Even on the Boethian definition of persona, then, we seem to verge toward “personality,” the “social Trinitarian” idea that each persona is a center of self-consciousness. It hardly seems like a verge at all; it seems to be implied in the definition of persons as instances of rational nature.

Given the definitions, it’s hard to see how this isn’t implied: what is curious, then, is how the medievals avoided coming to this same conclusion, since Boethius’s definition was something of a standard throughout medieval theology. Perhaps if we look closely, though, it’s not so curious. Aquinas picked up on the potential problems here and argued against applying the Boethian definition to God (as did T.F. Torrance: “Nor of course can the Boethian concept of person be applied to God as such, who is not an individual person,” Reality and Scientific Theology, p. 175), since God’s rational nature is not the same as man’s rational nature, which is discursive reason, nor is God an individual in the same way man is, since man’s individuality derives from matter (Aquinas references Boethius by name here in his noting of the inadequacy of the definition). Richard of St. Victor provides Aquinas with a more adequate definition: the term “person” in God refers to “the incommunicable existence of the divine nature” (Torrance, interestingly enough, was very sympathetic to this definition). One wonders if there isn’t an ironic hint of univocity here in Leithart’s thinking— a univocity that Aquinas avoids by distinguishing carefully between “rationality” and “individuality” as applied to man and as applied to God.

By (apparently) assuming that the rationality and individuality that man has is the same rationality and individuality that the persons of the Trinity have, Leithart unsurpisingly ends up with a picture of the Trinity which looks quite…human. It is this univocity that allows Leithart to say that:

If the divine Persons are instances of rational nature, they must possess a divine capacity analogous to what humans experience as self-consciousness. Going beyond Boethius, we may ask: Of what are the divine Persons conscious when they are self-conscious? Is the Son conscious of being God, or also of being Son? Is the Son aware that He is Son? It would be exceedingly odd to say No. More than odd: Jesus knows that He’s Son (cf. especially John’s gospel), and the Person of the incarnate Son is the eternal Son, so the eternal Son must know that He is Son.

But then we must add: The Father is not aware of Himself as Son, nor is the Spirit. The Father and Spirit cannot be aware of themselves as Son, because they are not. The Father rather knows Himself as Father of the Son by the Spirit, the Spirit knows Himself as the Spirit of the Father and Son.

Leithart says that the divine capacity must be analogous, but if the persons of the Trinity are individual substances of a rational nature in the same way humans are, then there is no analogy: the relation between God and man has been flattened here into univocity, though Leithart appears to be unaware of this. It is, as noted above, almost an analytic truth that if we apply the Boethian definition to the Trinity, things tilt in a social direction. Perhaps this serves to point to a univocity latent within social Trinitarianism, which would be one more reason to reject the doctrine. But at any rate, this is an important point to emphasize: it is not the Boethian definition that verges towards social Trinitarianism. The Boethian definition itself is perfectly workable within an orthodox framework, so long as a proper doctrine of analogy is in place.

It is telling that Boethius himself, in his own exposition of the idea of persons and substances, exercises something like an analogical understanding of these terms: God is a substance for Boethius not because He is simply a substrate underlying change “but because, just as He excels above all things, so He is the foundation and support of things, supplying them all with [ousiosthai] or subsistence.” (A Treatise Against Eutyches and Nestorius, III)) It would seem, then, that though Boethius doesn’t make use of the analogical apparatus of Aquinas there is a latent sensitivity to the idea that God and man cannot be persons (or substances) in a univocal way.

The difficulties Leithart finds himself entangled in as a result of his univocity are illuminating not because of the answers he gives but rather because they illustrate just how easy it is to do both bad philosophy and bad theology once the difference between God and man has been flattened out. Consider:

If the persons individual substances of rational nature, then they also will. But what do they will? Does the Son will Himself to be Son? I am not suggesting that the Son is Son by virtue of willing His Sonship, but surely the Son isn’t unwillingly Himself. The will to be what one is would also seem to be an aspect of rational nature. Trees don’t have the option to will to be what they are; I do, though I can also will to not-be. But then we must ask: Does the Father will Himself to be Son, or the Spirit. Surely not: The Father is willingly Father of the Son in the Spirit, the Spirit willingly Spirit of Father and Son. And that means, again, that the will of God is hypostatized, on Boethius’s definition of persona as a individual substance of a rational nature.

This is, to put perhaps too fine a point on it, incoherent, and perhaps even worse, just plain weird.

Leithart is correct to say that individual substances of a rational nature will, but is puzzled about what they might will. There is something of a standard answer in medieval philosophy to this question: the will is a capacity for motivation, and depends upon the intellect, which is the capacity to cognize things to do. So, to answer Leithart’s question: the individual substance of a rational nature wills what the intellect cognizes as possible, desirable, etc (this is, clearly, a quick-and-dirty breakdown of this topic).

It is clear however that such answers don’t interest Leithart, since he immediately moves on to ask questions that boggle the mind. What can it possibly mean, for example, to say that I can will to not-be? Can I will to not-be myself? What would that look like? Is Sartre lurking in the background here? “The will to be what one is would also seem to be an aspect of rational nature”— exactly how are we supposed to cash this statement out? Is Leithart suggesting that as an individual substance of a rational nature, I have the option to will to not-be an individual substance of a rational nature? Surely I can will to be or not-be in a sense: I can will to be or not-be a carpenter. But being-a-carpenter is not my essence but is rather something accidental to me: to suggest that I can will to be or-not be that which I essentially am strains even the most charitable reading.

Even more concerning, it appears that univocity has reared its head once again. Consider the move from the tree analogy to the fact that I can will to not-be and then immediately to the question of whether the Father wills Himself to be the Son or the Spirit. Leithart has moved from an inanimate object to a rational nature to a divine being in one fell swoop, and so he has unsurprisingly ended up verging towards social Trinitarianism: not because the gap between Boethius and social Trinitarianism isn’t as narrow as once thought, but because Leithart begins from a place from which no other conclusion is possible.

Based on the Boethian definition of “person” and how modern social Trinitarians use the term “person,” Leithart “suggests that the gap between Boethius and recent Trinitarian theology is not as wide as both sides have sometimes thought.” But, as I’ve argued above, the apparent narrowness of the gap isn’t due to any actual affinity between Boethian and modern conceptions of the term “person” but rather to the univocal semantics implicit within social Trinitarianism and the sloppy reading of relevant primary and secondary sources. The value of the Boethian definition for Trinitarian discourse has been and should continue to be debated— Karl Barth rejected the term “person” in his own Trinitarian theology, for example (substituting the less inspirational “mode of being” for “person”)— but what should not be done is to read modern conceptions into ancient doctrines and then be surprised when the one resembles the other. Dr. Leithart unfortunately appears to have done just this, and has given us a problem where none need be.