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7/24/2015 5:23 pm  #1

Real distinction between essence and esse and the Incarnation

For some time, I was agnostic over the question of whether the distinction between essence and esse was real or just formal (defining that there is a real distinction between two things only if the things can be physically separated.) More precisely, I perceived that the question was based on differences in the definitions of both essence (in the mind, ¿is the essence of a thing or a representation thereof?) and esse. Consecuently, I perceived that either position could be held, of course not at the same time. The situation seemed analogous to that of Quantum Mechanics formalism, where Heisenberg's matrix mechanics and Schrödinger's wave mechanics are equivalent formalisms, in the sense that using either leads to the same result, though of course they cannot be used at the same time. Or to the situation of platonism and ante rem structuralism, in philosophy of math.

That was so until I read an article about how to explain at a philosophical level why Jesus' human nature is not a human person, where the solutions presented by Scotus and Suarez, out of their rejection of the real distinction between essence and esse, seemed wholy unsatisfactory from the philosophical viewpoint. Which led me to the acceptance of said real distinction, in the process that I describe below, starting with the definition of person.

Definition of person

Adopting the definition of person by Boethius: "an individual substance of a rational nature", St. Thomas Aquinas refines it by stating that:

"the individual substance, which is included in the definition of a person, implies a complete substance subsisting of itself and separate from all else (substantia completa per se subsistens separata ab aliia);" (ST III, q. 16, a. 12, ad 2).

The "per se subsistent" qualification plays a key part in the case of the Incarnation, while the "complete" qualification does so in the case of disembodied human souls.

The case of the Incarnation of the Logos

The problem posed by the Encarnation of the Logos is simple: why was NOT the "individual substance of a rational nature" of Jesus' Humanity a human person?

In this case, holding the real distinction between esse and essence allows a straightforward solution using the refined definition of person by St. Thomas Aquinas: the substance of Jesus' Humanity was not "per se subsistent", but existed by the Subsistent Act of Being of the Logos.  That is, Christian doctrine of the Trinity states that each Divine Person is the Divine Essence.  Thomism, in turn, affirms that the Divine Essence is the Subsistent Act of Being Itself (Ipsum Esse Subsistens), so that each Divine Person is the Subsistent Act of Being.  Therefore, the assumption of a human nature by a Divine Person means that such human nature exists, from the moment of its creation, by the Subsistent Act of Being which that Divine Person eternally Is.

In contrast, denying the real distinction between esse and essence poses a serious problem, as in this case the human nature, or essence, of Jesus would have its own contingent act of being, i.e. would be "per se subsistent" as any other human nature.  Why then would not be the "complete, per se subsistent, separate substance of a rational nature" of Jesus' Humanity a human person?  To this problem, two solutions were proposed, by Suarez and Scotus:

Suarez: personhood is a "substantial mode" that presupposes the existence of a singular rational nature.

Objection: Suarez' "substantial mode" is not a "physical", as the scholastics would say, property of the person in question, with "physical" meaning "real and objectively present". It is just a spurious mental construct in the mind of the observer, and only if that observer actually believes in that "substantial mode".

Scotus: personhood is something negative, namely the negation of the hypostatic union in an existing singular rational nature.

Objection: this is just preposterous.

Therefore the unacceptable character of these proposed solutions argues, by reductio ad absurdum, for the real distinction between essence and esse. But there is a much stronger argument for that real distinction, namely the occasions in John's Gospel when Jesus said of Himself just "I Am", clearly in the same way as God (the Father) named Himself "I Am" ("Ehyeh") in Ex 3:14.

"For if you do not believe that I Am, you will die in your sins." (Jn 8:24b)

So Jesus said (to them), "When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I Am, and that I do nothing on my own, but I say only what the Father taught me." (Jn 8:28)

Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I Am." (Jn 8:58)

"From now on I am telling you before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe that I Am." (Jn 13:19)

In all these passages, but particularly the third, it seems to me that the most fitting interpretation is that in Jesus there is only one Act of Being, the eternal, Subsistent Act of Being of the Son. Because otherwise He should have said "before Abraham came to be, I Am in my divine nature".  Therefore his human essence does not exist by a created, contingent act of being, but by the Subsistent Act of Being of the Son.

This case, in which a created essence does not exist by its own contingent act of being, shows that there is a real distinction between essence and esse.

Turning now to the definition of person within the real distinction camp, there are basically two posibilities:

Cajetan, etc.: personhood is a "substantial mode" between "an individual substance of a rational nature" and esse.

Billot: personhood is the esse of "an individual substance of a rational nature".

I agree with Billot.  The position of Cajetan, etc. suffers from exactly the same problem as that of Suarez.  In other words, there are no persons without esse, either created, contingent esse or Uncreated, Subsistent Esse.

Last edited by Johannes (8/03/2015 6:08 pm)


9/28/2017 1:58 pm  #2

Re: Real distinction between essence and esse and the Incarnation

Since my coverage of Scotus' position on the hypostatic union in the opening post was extremely brief, I will quote some passages of a very good book by Richard Cross on this subject [1] which I have just become aware of.

"Scotus is quite clear that the human nature is a truth-maker, and that it performs this role by communicating existence to the divine suppositum. He argues that, in order for the human nature to communicate existence, it must have its own existence, distinct from the existence of the Word." (p. 127)

Note that, while for Thomists the Word communicates divine existence to Jesus' human nature, for Scotus Jesus' human nature communicates human existence to the Word! For Scotus, the way in which the Word can be said to communicate existence to Jesus' human nature is, in his words: "Rather, to communicate existence in this way is to be the end term of the dependence of the actual existence of an assumed nature." (p. 128). Thus, for Scotus "the Incarnation should be thought of as a dependence relation." (p. 132).  

My question is: What does that dependence actually mean, if, as we will see, no non-relational property changes in Christ's human nature either as a prerequisite or as a result of that dependence?

Expanding the concept above, Cross writes:

"Scotus - unlike any other of our theologians - makes it quite clear that the hypostatic union involves no more than a relation in the assumed human nature. For example, there is, according to Scotus, no non-relational property had by the assumed nature but not had by any other nature. [...] Briefly, suppose the hypostatic union necessitated some addition non-relational property in Christ's human nature. In this case, we would have to say that, necessarily, any assumed nature has some non-relational properties which no other nature has. And this might serve to make any assumed nature radically unlike any non-assumed nature;" (p. 133).

Notably, one of "Scotus's arguments for the claim that there is no non-relational property in the assumed human nature not had by any other nature" is that "if any such non-relational property were a necessary property of Christ's human nature, then it would be impossible for Christ's human nature to be given up by the Word." (pp. 133-134). This assumption by Scotus is IMV most remarkable, given that it is de fide about the hypostatic union:

- that it took place at the moment of Christ's conception, and
- that it will never cease.

Thus, while it would seem natural - at least to me - to develop a philosophical explanation for the hypostatic union on the assumption that these facts are necessarily true, Scotus goes in exactly the opposite way, developing an explanation on the assumption that these facts are not necessarily true, but only contingently true by God's will.

Now, "There are [...] two sorts of non-relational property that Scotus could have in mind here. First, he could be thinking of a non-relational property whose presence is explained by the relation of hypostatic dependence Secondly, he could be thinking of a non-relational property which is explanatorily [sic] prior to the relation of hypostatic dependence. In fact [...[ Scotus has in mind the second sort of property: a property which could serve as an explanation for the presence of the relation of hypostatic dependence. But his arguments will work equally effectively against the first sort of property, and Scotus certainly denies that the relation of hypostatic dependence entails any further non-relational property." (p. 133).

Recalling that "According to Scotus, it is possible for the Word to lay aside his human nature. If the Word did this, there would according to Scotus be no change in the abandoned nature other than a merely relational one. Thus, no non-relational feature of the nature would be changed." (p. 134)

To me, the claim "that there could be a relational change without an underlying non-relational one" implies simply that the relation is question is purely nominal, a mere declaration. Moreover, Cross notes that such claim "is profoundly anti-Aristotelian. Aristotle claims that there is no change that is merely a change in the category of relation. Suppose there is a relation between two objects x and y. We would normally suppose that there could not be any change in this relationship unless either x or y is itself changed." (p. 134)

Before Scotus, Richard of Middleton had answered this objection thusly:

"For a created essence to exist in itself or in another ... depends on the divine will, [...] the divine will without change can will a created substance to exist in itself or in the divine suppositum," (p. 134).

So, Richard of Middleton says that an unchanging created essence can be switched by God between existing in itself and existing in the divine suppositum. Now, what would that divine act entail?

- a change in the act of being (Thomism)?
- a change in the mode of being (Suarez)?
- a mere declaration (Scotus)?

In the first case, while I hold that the hypostatic union means that the Word is the Act of Being of Jesus' human nature, I deny that a human nature that exists by the Subsistent Act of Being which a divine Person Is can be "switched" to exist by its own contingent act of being and viceversa. So, if the Word "gave up" of "laid aside" his assumed human nature, that human nature would just cease to Be. Conversely, a human person existing by his own contingent act of being cannot "cease to be" by that contingent act of being and "start to Be" by the Act of Being of the Word. Rather, the assumption of a human nature by a divine Person can occur only at the moment of creation of that human nature.

In the second case, while I hold with St. Basil of Cesarea that each of the divine Persons is the divine Nature in its respective mode of Being (Fontal Plenitude and Paternity, Filiation, Passive Spiration or Procession), which is the respective personal property, I do not see a compelling reason to hold that a human nature can exist in two modes of being: "personal" (all of us) or "assumed" (Jesus). Even so, if Jesus' human nature existed by its own contingent act of being, He could not have properly said Jn 8:58.

In the third case, nothing needs or even deserves to be said.


[1] Richard Cross, The Metaphysics of the Incarnation: Thomas Aquinas to Duns Scotus. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.


Last edited by Johannes (9/28/2017 2:02 pm)

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