Saturday, February 21, 2009

Old Email Concerning Aquinas' Use of the Term "Person" for God


I once wrote this email to a colleague of mine who is an atheist. I
have a good relationship with this individual, but we greatly disagree
when it comes to matters that concern theology. :)

Hi Sue [name inserted to replace the original one],

I've been reading a book entitled "After Aquinas"
written by Fergus Kerr and I think it contains some interesting
remarks on divine personhood that I'd like to share with you.

Kerr writes that in ordinary modern usage, the term "person" is
"co-extensive" with "human being" (After Aquinas, 193). Philosophy
students influenced by the Cartesian turn to subjectivity, however, no
doubt think of a person in terms of "a self-conscious or rational
being," a usage which was also quite familiar to the British
Empiricist John Locke.

However, Thomas Aquinas holds that the term "person"
when applied to God actually refers to "an individual substance of a
rational nature" (rationalis naturae individua substantia) as long as
one carefully nuances or qualifies what is meant by "individual"
(i.e., incommunicable) "rational" (non-discursive, but intellectual)
and "substance" ('self-grounded existing').

Kerr closes the paragraph I took this information from by noting:

"Of course, as Thomas keeps insisting, this concept of person [i.e.,
rationalis naturae individua substantia] applies in discourse about
God only analogically" (After Aquinas, 193).

See the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, particularly ST 1.13.5;

If I don't communicate with you between now and Friday, have a good


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