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date: 23 October 2019

John Duns Scotus

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter argues that John Duns Scotus has several goals in the epistemology of theology: logical consistency, certainty, truth, and right praxis. The first section covers the natural knowledge of God, in which Scotus defends the claim that there are some non-complex univocal concepts, that they can be the building blocks of complex analogical concepts, and that univocal and analogical concepts are applicable to God and to creatures. A genealogy is given of three exegetical mistakes regarding univocity made by some twentieth-century thinkers. The second section covers five ways that one can have supernatural knowledge of God: intuitive cognition, abstractive cognition with the possibility of doubt, abstractive cognition without the opportunity for doubt, biblical exegesis, and faith. The next section discusses the scientific character of theology, and how such knowledge is literally a part of the praxis of loving God. The conclusion discusses how theology can resolve dilemmas in a naturalistic epistemology.

Keywords: John Duns Scotus, epistemology, natural knowledge, supernatural knowledge, God, faith, univocity, analogy, praxis

Duns Scotus (1265–1308 ce) is an epistemological pluralist; he holds that there are several goals for the epistemology of theology: logical consistency, certainty, truth, and right praxis. In what follows I discuss how he aims for these goals within his accounts of the natural knowledge of God, faith and supernatural knowledge of God, and the connection between the epistemology of theology and right praxis.

Natural Knowledge of God

Scotus usually talks about the natural knowledge of God within the context of answering the question of ‘whether God is naturally cognizable by the intellect of a wayfarer’ (Scotus 1954: 1; 1960: 223). What Scotus understands this question to be asking is this: ‘Can a human being in the state of original sin think of God if God does not uniquely intervene in bringing about this person’s thought about God?’ Scotus affirms that such a human being can think of God in this way.

What is the best explanation of this situation? Scotus’s ‘doctrine of univocity’ is the shorthand name for his account of how such a human being can come to think about God in this way. What a person might think about God in this situation is another issue (e.g. ‘God loves creatures’, ‘God is wise’). Scotus is optimistic that we can come to think important truths about God ‘naturally’. He maintains that I can ‘naturally’ think about God and in turn develop arguments to show that, for example, God exists and is infinite, numerically one, a knower and a willer. Metaphysics is the discipline in which we arrive at such natural knowledge of God. What can be known about God in metaphysics is limited to what is naturally knowable about God, and theology can claim to know more about God because of God’s self-revelation.

Scotus famously argues that for us to think about God as such, whether in metaphysics or theology, there must be some concepts that are applicable both to God and to creatures. To a large extent, Scotus develops his position in response to Henry of Ghent’s (p. 422) theory of analogy and Richard of Conington’s defence of Henry’s position (Brown and Dumont 1989: 7–12). Nonetheless, Scotus also offers criticism against the common view of analogy that claims to be necessary for natural or supernatural cognition of God.

Scotus, like almost all his contemporaries, is committed to the metaphysical position that God and creatures are primarily diverse from each other. God transcends creatures such that they have nothing really in common (Ghent 1953: 124; Duns Scotus 1956: 190). Scotus agrees with Thomas Aquinas that we can make true affirmations and negations about God as such. If we can make true negations about God (e.g. ‘God is not dead’), then this presupposes that we have some sort of positive knowledge of God, e.g. ‘God is good’ (Cross 2005: 258–9). Further, positive knowledge of God is required for one’s loving God. Scotus says, ‘negations are not the object of our highest love’ (Scotus 1954: 5). We must have some positive knowledge of God, however general or obscure, because Christians do in fact love God.

According to the ‘common view of analogy’, the concept of being is centrally important for our knowledge of God (Brown 1965; Dumont 1987, 1988, 1998). The concept of being primarily refers to God (who is ‘being itself’), and a derivative but connected concept of being refers to creatures. There is not one concept of being that refers to God and to creatures. Instead, there are two distinct but related concepts of being. The ‘analogical community’ between these two concepts is based upon creatures’ causal dependence on God.

Henry of Ghent finds the ‘common view of analogy’ insufficient because the analogical community is also epistemic. Henry posits the clarification that the ‘community of analogy’ is an intellectual confusion. When a human person thinks ‘being’ he might mistakenly assume that this concept refers to God and to creatures. But this would imply that there is something really in common between God and creatures. Instead, one is confused in virtue of having two similar concepts of being. The concept referring to God is negatively undetermined and indeterminable. The concept referring to creatures is privatively undetermined and determinable.

Scotus gives as many as ten objections against Henry’s solution to the basis for the ‘community of analogy’. I discuss the most powerful: the argument from certainty and doubt. Henry claimed that when we think ‘being’—as merely undetermined—we are confused and doubtful as to whether we are actually thinking the concept of ‘being’ as negatively or privatively undetermined. Scotus replies that Henry’s position is contradictory. Henry says that we are doubtful of what we think when thinking ‘being’ (whether we are thinking ‘being’ as negatively or privatively undetermined) and that we are certain of what we think when thinking either one of these concepts. In short, Henry claims that we are doubtful and certain of the very same concept. This is a contradiction. Scotus puts his argument in a syllogism:

[Premise 1] An intellect certain about one concept but doubtful about others, has a concept about which it is certain that is different from the concepts about which it is doubtful.

[Premise 2] We can be certain that God is a being, but doubt whether God is infinite or finite being, created or uncreated.

(p. 423) [Conclusion] Therefore, the concept of being is different from the concept of infinite being and finite being, and so [does not include or imply finitude or infinity] of itself and it is asserted of each of these. Hence, [the concept of being is] univocal.

(Scotus 1954: 18; I have slightly altered Dumont’s translation 2003: 308)

Scotus infers that we do in fact have a concept of being that is not identical to the concept of ‘infinite being’ (or ‘uncreated being’) or ‘finite being’ (or ‘created being’). In another text he describes the concept of being as ‘that to which existence (esse) is not repugnant’ (Frank and Wolter 1995: 179 n. 27). Scotus gives a de facto argument for the second premise (Scotus 1954: 18–19).

Scotus claims that this abstract concept of being is a simple concept—an atomic concept (Scotus 1956: 182–3). This simple concept is in contrast to the complex concepts ‘infinite being’ and ‘finite being’. These complex concepts are made up of the simple concept of being and a concept of an intrinsic mode (infinite, finite). A concept of an intrinsic mode is a concept of a certain degree of intensity of some reality (e.g. being, whiteness). Finite degrees of ‘being’ can be proportionally measured like the number four is twice that of two. Some creatures (e.g. angels) have a higher degree of existing than other creatures (e.g. rocks). But the infinite degree of being wholly exceeds all finite degrees such that there is no measurable proportion between them (Frank and Wolter 1995: 151–5; Dumont 1987: 12–13). Scotus argues that a ‘mode’ does not add a new reality, but instead it determines a certain degree of intensity of that reality. Consequently, the same simple concept of being is a constituent of the complex concept ‘infinite being’ and the complex concept ‘finite being’.

The relation between the concept of ‘being’ as it is in ‘infinite being’ and as it is in ‘finite being’ is the relation of univocity (Dumont 1987: 5 n. 10; Cross 2012: 150–1). The same simple concept is a part of different complex concepts. The relation of univocity is a semantic relation and not an extra-mental real relation. Univocity is not a relation between a concept and an extra-mental thing, or between one thing (e.g. God) and another thing (e.g. creatures). Furthermore, the semantic relation between the complex concepts of ‘infinite being’ and ‘finite being’ is analogy. The relation of analogy here is between transcendental concepts and not between categorial concepts like ‘animal’ (a genus) and ‘human’ (a species). A transcendental concept is irreducible to any categorial concept. On Scotus’s account of analogy it is false to claim that a human being as human is analogous to God, but true to claim that a finite being is analogous to an infinite being.

Scotus agrees with the traditional view that creatures participate in God and understands this to mean that every creature causally depends on God. Scotus’s doctrine of univocity is compatible with the claim that creatures are analogical to God. Moreover, this doctrine of univocal concepts explains, and defends our having, analogical concepts for God and creatures. Regrettably, some contemporary writers have not acknowledged this fact about Scotus’s doctrine of univocity (Deleuze 1996: 37–9; Boulnois 1999: 290–1).

Scotus claims that if his own theory is false, then this will be the ruin of theology as a discipline that makes deductive arguments (Scotus 1960: 266–7; Cross 2005: 252–3). Without the doctrine of univocity, metaphysicians and theologians would commit (p. 424) the fallacy of equivocation in their deductive arguments about God. But Christian thinkers, going back to the patristic era, have made deductive arguments about God. Consequently, metaphysicians and theologians ought to agree with the doctrine of univocity—that there are some univocal concepts applicable to God and to creatures.

There have been three common exegetical mistakes about Scotus’s doctrine of univocity. The first has been to confuse the reference of the simple concept of being. One way to confuse the reference of this concept is to claim that for Scotus the simple concept of being is both a first intention (i.e. a concept referring to an extra-mental item) and a second intention (i.e. a concept referring to another concept).

Frederick Copleston, in trying to synthesize two inconsistent texts of Scotus, mistakenly posited that this simple concept of being is a first and second intention (Copleston 1962: 230–1). Without the benefit of having the critical editions of Scotus’s texts, Copleston did not know that Scotus changed his mind on this issue of the univocal concept of being between the time of his early philosophical texts (in which the simple concept of being is a second intention) and his later theological texts (in which the simple concept of being is a first intention). Copleston tried to reconcile these texts by postulating that this concept of being is a first intention and a second intention (Marrone 1983; Pini 2005). Boulnois makes a similar mistake in describing Scotus’s doctrine of univocity as ‘logical univocity’ (Boulnois 1999: 290–1).

In later texts Scotus is explicit that this simple concept of being is a first intention rather than a second intention, and he circumscribes its reference (Scotus 1956: 221–7):

It should be noted how a certain first intention of A [e.g. God] and B [e.g. creatures] is indifferent and corresponds to nothing of one feature in reality, but the formal objects [e.g. God and creatures] are understood to be primarily diverse, in one first intention, although each imperfectly.

(Scotus 1956: 221)

Recent commentators have helpfully expressed Scotus’s claim about reference by saying that God and creatures fall under the extension of the same concept despite their being ontologically primarily diverse (Pini 2002: 178–9; Cross 2005: 251, 256; Williams 2005: 578).

The second mistake, by Gilles Deleuze, is to infer from the concept’s semantic univocity to the ontological univocity of its referents. Deleuze mentions that Scotus says that the concept of being is univocal, but then overlooks the centrality of the univocity of the concept of being and instead speaks of ‘univocal being’ and claims ‘all things [are] divided up within being, in the univocity of simple presence’. The univocal concept of being refers to things (i.e. God and creatures) with ‘univoc[al] … presence’ (Deleuze, 1996: 37). However, when Scotus says, ‘there is nothing of one feature in reality’, what he is denying is the inference from semantic univocity to ontological univocity, which is exactly the inference that Deleuze makes.

The third mistake, by Oliver Boulnois, is to claim that the doctrine of univocity implies the denial of analogy between God and creatures. Boulnois claims that for (p. 425) Scotus analogy between concepts of God and creatures is impossible, and that only univocity or equivocity is possible (Boulnois 1999: 290–1). Boulnois overlooks what Scotus says of the semantic relation of analogy between complex transcendental concepts like ‘infinite being’ and ‘finite being’. This is unfortunate for many reasons, not the least of which is a fatal distortion of a vital resource for the contemplation of God. One might say that Scotus’s univocal concepts are like the first step on Jacob’s ladder towards God, and his analogous concepts are like all the subsequent elevatory steps towards God. For, ‘every act of the intellect that stretches out towards God as its object is simply more perfect than an act of intellect concerning something created’ (Scotus 1639: 515).

Certain contemporary writers (e.g. Milbank, Gregory, and Pickstock) who depend on Copleston or Deleuze or Boulnois have been misled and disseminate these mistakes. Milbank, who follows Deleuze through Rose, recapitulates Deleuze’s mistake (Rose 1984: 103–5; Milbank 2006: viii, 304–5). Gregory, following Milbank, disseminates this mistake when speaking of Scotus’s ‘univocal metaphysics’ (Gregory 2012: 36–8). Pickstock makes Deleuze’s mistake in the first half of the following sentence and Boulnois’s version of Copleston’s in the second half (by conflating a logical description of a concept with the first intention concept itself): ‘Every existing thing, whether finite or infinite, is univocal in quid, where being is taken to mean an essential “not not-being” ’ (Pickstock 2005a: 568, emphasis added). When challenged about these mistakes Pickstock says on two occasions that she is unwilling to defend her exegesis ‘with regard to specific texts’, in order to maintain a broad historical narrative that Scotus’s doctrine of univocity was bad for theology and society in general (Pickstock 2005a: 570 n. 2, 2005b: 319 n. 2. See also Cross 2001; Williams, 2005). Like Deleuze, Boulnois, and Milbank, Pickstock denies that Scotus has a doctrine of analogy that is not reducible to univocity or equivocity (Pickstock 2005b: 284). She contends that disagreement about Scotus’s doctrine of univocity is evaluative and not exegetical. However, this is a red herring.

These exegetical mistakes are not new. These are but the most recent iterations of a misrepresentation of Scotus that goes at least as far back as Joseph Kleutgen’s 1860 history of medieval philosophy, Philosophie der Vorzeit (Inglis 1997: 31, 1998: 96–100). Nonetheless, theologians like David Bentley Hart have called attention to Milbank’s and others’ exegetical mistakes (Hart 2003: 41 n. 6, 61). Clearly, more work needs to be done on the historiography of Scotus’s doctrine of univocity going all the way back to the fourteenth century in order to expose any long-standing misrepresentations of it.

Supernatural Knowledge of God and Faith

Scotus maintains that God’s transcendence limits what we can naturally know about God. If we naturally know God, then we know God under general descriptions and (p. 426) not as this God in particular. One way that Scotus describes God’s transcendence is to say that this God is not a cognizable object like any other. Unlike all other cognizable objects, a creature thinks of this God only if this God wills that this creature think of this God. This is called supernatural cognition of God. Scotus mentions some of the articles of the Christian faith (e.g. that God is three and one, that God the Son became incarnate in the womb of Mary, that God will resurrect the dead) as examples of when a person supernaturally thinks of God.

Scotus distinguishes five ways that a person might have a supernatural cognition of God (Scotus 2004b: 68–9). The first way is the beatific vision, which God gives to the blessed in heaven. A person directly ‘sees’ (i.e. thinks of) this God as existing here and now without need of an ‘intelligible species’. An ‘intelligible species’ is an intellectual disposition that bears mental content, and is a partial efficient cause of one’s thinking of a certain extra-mental object. Scotus agrees with Henry of Ghent’s analogy from seeing an object to thinking of an object as existing and present. Henry calls this type of thinking ‘vision’, and Scotus calls it ‘intuitive cognition’. In contrast to vision or intuitive cognition, Henry calls thinking distinctly of an object without thinking of the object as existing and present, ‘understanding’ and Scotus calls it ‘abstractive cognition’ (Dumont 1989: 592–3). Abstractive cognition entails thinking of an extra-mental object in part by means of an ‘intelligible species’ such that the cognized object is not experienced as existing here and now. There is a difference between ‘seeing’ Rome, in part by means of Rome itself, and ‘seeing’ Rome, in part by means of an ‘intelligible species’.

The second way in which one might cognize this God supernaturally is if this God causes a person to have an abstractive cognition of this God such that the person thinks of this God distinctly, but does not experience this God as existing here and now. A person with this abstractive cognition is unwilling to doubt the truth of what she thinks. One could doubt but usually chooses not to doubt. The third way is much like the second except in this case God impedes the person (e.g. prophets, apostles) with this abstractive cognition from being able to doubt what she thinks of this God.

The fourth way is through biblical exegesis, which corrects misunderstandings of Holy Scripture. Scotus adds that elders in the church are engaged in this activity and aim to resolve any doubts that a person has about things said in Holy Scripture about this God.

The fifth way is an act of faith whereby a person believes those things that are necessary for salvation (i.e. the articles of faith). Elsewhere Scotus discusses ‘whether among things revealed to us it is necessary to posit infused faith’. Scotus distinguishes between faith that is acquired through learning—whether studying Holy Scripture or hearing the scriptures being preached—and an infused faith that God freely gives to a person.

Scotus describes faith as a ‘generated habit that inclines to something not evident of itself as to [something] true, and with this determination, that one assents to that as true’ (Scotus 2004a: 119). It is a habit, namely a quality that inheres in a substance. Someone with acquired faith is more certain than someone with an opinion because the person with this faith trusts the veracity of the witness giving testimony. The veracity of a witness depends upon its good reputation; if the witness has a good reputation, then you should trust that witness. Scotus claims that Holy Scripture, the saints, and the church each (p. 427) have a good reputation and so should be trusted. Someone today with critical historiographical concerns might disagree with Scotus by supposing that claims made in the Bible have less veracity. Still, Scotus would be concerned that one rightly understand the scriptures before making a judgement about their veracity.

Scotus’s examples of acquired faith are not limited to theological examples but include everyday examples (e.g. I believe those who claim to be my parents; I believe that the world existed for a long time before I existed; I believe that Rome is a real place even though I have not seen it). Acquired faith, however, is not as certain as scientific knowledge because science has evidence from the object itself (Scotus 2004a: 102–3).

Anyone can have acquired faith if he or she participates in the life of the church. Someone who is not baptized (and without infused faith, discussed below) can nevertheless learn what the baptized learn through studying and hearing scripture. Moreover, such a person can believe the same things that the baptized believe (Scotus 2004a: 101–2).

Scotus believes that infused faith differs in three ways from acquired faith. First, God causes a person to have infused faith that inclines the person to believe God and what is true of God. Like acquired faith, infused faith is a habit and not a mental representation; it does not bear mental content. A person with infused or acquired faith comes to have mental representations (‘intelligible species’) of the articles of faith by learning what is to be believed through studying the scriptures and being taught the articles of faith by the elders of the church or both.

The second difference has to do with certainty as a subjective conviction. A person with acquired faith can waver in believing the veracity of the one giving testimony and so waver in believing that the articles of faith are true. Such a person can waver because it is possible for the one giving testimony to be deceived or to deceive. But the person with infused faith is inclined to believe what is in fact true of God. Scotus considers the case of when the Apostles (before receiving infused faith) asked Jesus, ‘Lord, increase our faith’ (Lk. 17:5). Scotus argues that if an act of believing the articles of faith are true were merely caused by a person’s will, then the Apostles would not have asked Jesus to increase their faith. Scotus concludes that believing the articles of faith to be true is not merely a matter of willpower. Infused faith explains why some believers do not waver in believing God and the truths of God and are willing to risk martyrdom. By contrast, theologians without infused faith might be less willing to risk martyrdom (Scotus 2004b: 63).

The third difference has to do with the dispositional well-being of a person who has been harmed by original sin. Scotus believes that God is a perfect healer such that God not only chooses to heal a person’s body (especially in the resurrection), but also begins the task of healing the person’s intellect and will in this life. God begins healing the intellect by giving the gift of infused faith. God’s accepting a person as justified (forgiven) from sin partially depends upon a person’s infused faith. Likewise, God gives the gift of love, namely an infused habit in the will that inclines one to love God firmly and passionately (Scotus 2004b: 74–5).

Having described acquired faith and infused faith, Scotus asks a question about both types of faith: ‘Can I know [i.e. have demonstrative knowledge] that I have the (p. 428) true faith?’ (Scotus 1639: 514–5). If the answer were yes, then it would follow that such a person has demonstrative knowledge that what he believes is true. But, claims Scotus, believers do not have demonstrative knowledge of the articles of faith. Consequently, a believer does not know that she has faith that is true. Nevertheless, she can know that she has faith by inferring from her own acts of faith to her habit of faith, and she can believe that she has faith that is true.

A person with infused faith is unwavering in her commitment to the truth of her faith. Scotus makes sense of this by analysing the object of infused faith, which is the truth of God and not something as revealed by God (Scotus 1639: 511–13). If one were to claim that one believes an article of faith only because God reveals it, then an infinite regress would ensue. Is it also revealed that the articles of faith are revealed by God, and so on? Scotus avoids the infinite regress by saying that he simply believes the articles of faith. Two such articles of faith are that God reveals the articles of faith, and that God gives infused faith. Given his characterization of infused faith, one could plausibly argue that Scotus’s view of infused faith as an intellectual inclination to believe something without recourse to inferences from evidence is similar to Alvin Plantinga’s ‘properly basic beliefs’ insofar as basicality is concerned (Plantinga 2009):

I say that it is necessary to posit infused faith because of the authority of Scripture and of the saints, but it cannot be demonstrated to belong to someone, unless it is presupposed by faith that he wills to believe Scripture and the saints (but it never will be shown to the non-believer). But just as I believe that God is three and one, so I believe that I have infused faith by which I believe this ….

(Scotus 2004a: 115)

Scotus trusts the veracity of Holy Scripture and the saints and learns about infused faith from them—he gets his mental representation (‘intelligible species’) of infused faith from them. He learns that his unwavering trust in their veracity derives from his infused faith. In sum, one’s infused faith and education from Holy Scripture, the church, and saints about infused faith are mutually supportive.

3. Epistemology of Theology and Theological Praxis

Scotus suggests that the epistemology of theology ought also to be understood as a part of a theological praxis, namely a life of loving God. Nicholas Lobkowisz claims that ‘Scotus seems to have been the first medieval thinker explicitly to ask the question, “What is a praxis?” … in a philosophical and theological context’ (Lobkowisz 1967: 71). After explaining Scotus’s account of theology as an explanatory science, I discuss his account of praxis and some of its implications for the epistemology of theology.

(p. 429) Scotus distinguishes between theology as such and our theology (Scotus 1950: 95–6, 102, 109–14). The former is God’s self-knowledge. The latter is knowledge of God as this God to the extent that God freely reveals Godself to individual persons who in turn can bear witness to others about God. Theologians, generally, are those whom God has gifted with distinct abstractive knowledge of this God, or this God’s actions, or both. For example, theologians can construct explanations of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the resurrection of the dead.

Scotus is adamant that abstractive knowledge of God is a gift given for God’s purposes. A person has abstractive knowledge of this God ‘not … through study, but it is rather a free gift given for the utility of the church, and Christ has known when it was useful to give that gift and to whom, as to the Apostles and to the Prophets’ (Scotus 2004b: 68). A theologian can receive any number of distinct abstractive concepts of God, but a theologian ought not to presume to have definitive or exhaustive abstractive knowledge of God; for a theologian has ‘participated’ knowledge of this God and so cognizes this God neither directly nor exhaustively (Scotus 2004b: 67–8).

Scotus argues that ‘theology is a gift distinct from faith, but not so perfect that it makes for perfect and distinct knowledge based on the evidence of the object as is the case with science, and nevertheless it is simply more perfect than any acquired science and any faith’ (Scotus 2004b: 73). A theologian’s abstractive cognition is more perfect than faith in the sense that a theologian has distinct concepts of this God and that these distinct concepts are put in an explanatory order. A theologian could doubt what she thinks of God, including her inferences from one claim to another. By contrast, a person with faith alone believes the articles of faith taught in Holy Scripture, has less clear concepts of God than the theologian, and does not make inferences from one claim to another in order to believe what is taught (Scotus 2004b: 62).

A theologian makes arguments that satisfy three out of the four conditions for a propter quid demonstration. A propter quid demonstration requires premises that are certain, necessary, self-evident, and explanatory of the conclusion. Scotus concedes that a theologian can have premises that are certain, necessary, and explanatory of the conclusion but denies that such premises are self-evident (i.e. from the object itself). Richard Cross discusses this in talking about a supposed demonstration of the Trinity:

The claim, then, that the proofs of the Trinity are not demonstrations simply means that they are not based on premises that have the strong degree of evidence (i.e. either inferential underivability or empirical undeniability) required for a demonstration. … The premises are necessary but derivable. So the proof will be strongly deductive, though not demonstrative in the strict sense.

(Cross 2005: 128–9, emphasis in original)

Since theology satisfies only three out of four conditions for a science, it is not a science strictly speaking. Nonetheless, if we use the term ‘science’ loosely so as to require premises that are certain, necessary, and explanatory, then theology is a deductive science. But why suppose that distinct concepts of God can be put in an explanatory order? According to (p. 430) Scotus’s ‘famous proposition’, a theologian’s distinct concepts of God can be explanatorily ordered. He argues that there is an essential or per se order between quidditative terms (e.g. intellect, will, thought, volition) whether or not we consider these as concepts in a mind or as extra-mental items. The essential order among quidditative items as indifferent to being in the mind or in reality is important: it enables Scotus to argue that a theologian can have explanatorily ordered concepts of God (Cross 2005: 107–14) He argues that:

Premise 1 Where the per se basis for an order remains the same, the order remains the same.

Premise 2 The per se basis for order remains the same whether those things are distinct really or by reason.

Conclusion Therefore, the order remains the same for things whether distinct really or by reason.

(Dumont 1992: 419)

If this argument is logically sound, then theologians are justified in claiming to have explanatorily ordered concepts of God. A theologian might argue that God’s simplicity is explanatorily prior to God’s immutability. Scotus says, ‘simplicity seems to be followed by immutability because what is simple cannot be moved or corrupted’ (Scotus 2004b: 45 n. 104).

Scotus’s defence of theology as a deductive science faces several challenges, one of which is the compatibility of theological science and faith in the same person (Scotus 2004a: 144). Scotus denies that infused faith and science taken strictly are compatible in the same person because the former does not have evidence from the object but the latter does. Nonetheless, infused faith and theology are compatible in the same person because both are certain and do not have evidence from the object itself (that is, the object is not self-evident). In a later text Scotus distinguishes between habits and occurrent acts, and claims that contrary or contradictory intellectual habits are compatible in the same person, but not contradictory occurrent thoughts (Scotus 1639: 520, 2004b: 61–3). I can have one habit inclining me to affirm an unclear claim about the Trinity (e.g. God is triune) and another habit inclining me to affirm a clear claim about the Trinity (e.g. there are three divine persons but only one divine essence). But I cannot simultaneously have unclear and clear occurrent thoughts about the Trinity. Hence, theology and infused faith are compatible in the same person.

Scotus’s overall position is noteworthy. A person can be a rigorous theologian (even without science taken strictly) and have steadfast faith. Scotus adds that a person can have a steadfast and passionate love for God while doing rigorous theology (Scotus 2004a: 74–5). The connection between theology, faith, and love is key. The epistemology of theology is a part of the praxis of loving God. He defines praxis as follows:

Praxis, to which practical cognition extends, is the act of a faculty other than the intellect which, by its very nature, is posterior to an intellection and can be elicited in conformity to right intellection so as to become right.

(Scotus 1950: 155; I have slightly altered Lobkowicz’s translation 1967: 72)

(p. 431) Praxis is an act of will necessarily posterior to an act of intellect and conforms to an act of intellect (Scotus 1950: 179–83). Suppose I come to understand the (supposed) necessary truth, ‘God is the most lovable object’, and infer ‘God must be loved’. Scotus claims that both thoughts are speculative as such. Nonetheless, these thoughts can be called practical thoughts because each has a twofold aptitude towards an act of will. Such a thought is apt to being prior to an act of will, and it is apt to be conformed to an act of will. The use of the term ‘conformal’ amounts to saying that there is an agreement between an act of intellect and an act of will. For example, one’s act of loving God agrees with the thought ‘God must be loved’.

Furthermore, praxis is righteous if it is conformal to a ‘right intellection’. For example, the act of loving God is always righteous because the claim that ‘God must be loved’ is a necessary truth. However, in the case of (supposed) contingent truths that I think about (e.g. ‘Adore God in the sacrifice of the altar’), I can have an act of will that agrees with this thought but is not righteous. The righteousness of this praxis depends upon God’s current covenant with humankind as revealed in Holy Scripture.

There are two immediate consequences from Scotus’s account of the relation between the epistemology of theology and theological praxis. First, a person can have true thoughts of God but fail to grasp the twofold aptitude of one’s thoughts for right praxis. Second, a person can fail to elicit an act of will (i.e. an act of love) that agrees with a true thought of God (e.g. ‘God must be loved’). If one does not grasp the twofold aptitude of one’s thoughts of God for one’s own act of loving God, then one may fail to appreciate the practical significance of one’s thoughts of God.


Why should epistemology be concerned with theology and with God in particular? Scotus says that philosophers are concerned with what is naturally knowable—they bracket off supernatural beliefs. However, philosophers often come to dilemmas that cannot be resolved by natural reason alone. Scotus calls this philosophical dilemma ‘nature’s fitting insufficiency’ (Frank 2012: 53–63). This dilemma is a fitting insufficiency because Scotus believes he can offer persuasive theological arguments (i.e. propter quid arguments without self-evident premises) that answer such dilemmas. For example, Scotus argues, ‘A human being cannot know from natural things his [or her] end distinctly; therefore, it is necessary for him [or her] to obtain supernatural cognition of this end’ (Scotus 1950: 10). Scotus argues that just as natural ethics is insufficient in its own terms, so too is natural epistemology insufficient in its own terms. If Scotus is persuasive, then the epistemology of theology should be seen as a necessary part of epistemology and theological praxis.


Thanks to William Abraham, Frederick Aquino, Nate Bulthuis, Gloria Frost, Heine Hansen, Peter John Hartman, C. S. Meijns, Sydney Penner, Stephan Schmid, and Thomas Ward from the reading group Schola Pro Bono for comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.


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