When to Stop Interpreting the Lord’s Supper

A number of years ago the Lutheran historian, Paul Rorem caused a stir among certain Eastern Orthodox theologians over his interpretation of the Pseudo-Dionysius. Rorem was accused, by Fr. Andrew Golitzin and others, of reading Dionysius like a Protestant, chiefly with regard to Holy Synaxis (a.k.a., the Eucharist). The crux of the debate had to do with Rorem’s emphasis on “interpretation,” which he said is of primary concern for Dionysius. To truly participate in synaxis one must rightly interpret the sacred symbols and “get behind the material show,” as Rorem via Dionysius says. Rorem referred to this act of peering beyond the veil as an “interpretation,” which implies that a right reading of the rite is all that is required of those who wish to commune with Christ. Of course, the problem with calling this a “Protestant” reading of Dionysius is that not all Protestants think interpretation is necessary for rightly communing with Christ in the Lord’s Supper.

Sure, some interpretation, some ability to distinguish between the sign and the thing behind the sign is necessary. Yet, interpretation is not the goal of the Lord’s Supper, nor should it be what one does while communing. If you know how to distinguish the sign from the thing, then you already have the power of “discerning the body” that should naturally direct you to the thing itself. An interpreter of Spanish, for example, has a habit of hearing Spanish, and so, his mind hears Spanish accurately without the use of a dictionary or mental deliberation. So, Christ calls us to participate in the whole event of his Supper with mind and body, not with the mind alone. The majority of Reformed theologians (at least of the first few centuries after the Reformation) believe that sanctifying grace is a quality (or qualities) that is infused (literally “poured in”) into the soul (mind and heart) by the Holy Spirit. By consequence, the activity of belief in the Supper itself (or in Christ within the Supper) is the mechanism of Christ-likeness (Christiformia) in the soul. The activity of faith in the Supper brings about a greater qualitative similarity to Jesus in the believer’s soul.  If there is any sacrifice involved, it is the sacrifice of ourselves, the sacrifice of our trust in ourselves and our ability to figure things out for ourselves (including the Supper!) as we surrender to the mind of Christ.

How does an increase in Christ-likeness (via infused qualities) happen in the event of Holy Communion? Most Reformed theologians agree that faith is not only an infused quality, but also a virtue. So, it will help to look at another virtue and ask, how does virtue itself increase? Let’s look at courage, for example. The courageous man becomes more courageous the more he takes on the likeness of perfect Courage, that is, the likeness of God’s own Courage (archetypal Courage). The courageous man takes on this likeness by performing courageously in battle or by choosing what is right in a moment of temptation rather than what is more immediately beneficial to him. How, then, should he interpret or develop an understanding of his courage? How will he know if he truly modeled archetypal Courage in his action? Should he stop to meditate on it while he is acting? Of course not. How could he be courageous if he’s distracted by his own act of self-reflection? Imagine a soldier fighting the enemy in close combat. If he pauses to reflect on the nature of his own courage he will most likely lose concentration on the enemy and lose the fight.

The same is true of our participation in the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion. We shouldn’t attempt to rationally distinguish between sign and thing signified while we eat the bread. We shouldn’t look at our own heart or introspectively examine ourselves as to whether we truly believe or not. How could you have faith in Christ’s promise at that moment if all you can think about is yourself? What should we do then? Don’t neglect self-examination. The unexamined life is not worth living after all. Just don’t examine yourself when you’re supposed to be doing something. When the consecrated bread is in your hands stop thinking about faith and just be faithful. Just believe that “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” Eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ is a faithful action. So, stop thinking about what you think about it and just eat. The King is here. It’s time for celebration. It’s time to be caught up in the beauty of holiness. It’s not time for deliberation. It’s not time for talking. There is a time for that. But, around the Lord’s table we are in God’s holy temple. Let all the Earth be silent.

When we do that our faith increases and we become more like Christ. We have performed faithfully and the faith that conquers the world has conquered us and given us new life. God has extended his Son to us as our greatest gift, and we have taken hold of him in an act of self-sacrificial dependance on all that he is and all that he promises to do within us. In that moment it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me. However, doesn’t this emphasis on the faithful act take away from the “means of grace”? Faith is not about acting courageously, right? That would imply that the sacraments are not gifts but activities that we must perform. The answer is in faith itself. Faith is an activity of remaining passive, but this does not meant that it is an act of indifference. It’s a passive act, if that makes sense. It is an act of taking hold of the gift that is given and holding it deep within ourselves. This takes some courage, the courage to leave yourself behind, as Martin Luther says. Yet, this is holy courage, because it sets us apart from the world. In fact, it takes us out of the world altogether and places us within Christ. As we repeatedly participate in his table we increasingly take on his Courage (exemplar Courage) to leave everything behind and cling to the Father.

Remember, sanctifying grace is an act of cooperation between you and God within you. The courageous activity of faith is never merely ours. It is ours because it is Christ within us. Yet, Christ is within us according to his likeness, not substantially (i.e., union with Christ is not spiritual transubstantiation). He is within us according to our God-given ability to reflect him, which is primarily displayed in faith, though faith is only an effect of his union with us (it doesn’t exhaust the meaning of union with Christ). The Giver is giving himself to us and acting within us. We are called to receive him but our reception does not make the gift. Our reception does, however, facilitate the gift giving by preparing our soul for it. It’s like hospitality. The more that we receive him, the more we prepare a place for him, and the better we become at welcoming him the way that a King should be welcomed. The King comes into our home the more we extend the invitation and open the door for him, though it is really his house to begin with. In so doing we become more and more like the King himself, who invites all of us to his wedding banquet. This doesn’t happen through mere interpretation. We already know how to interpret. We know what is behind the veil. The Supper is not for interpretation but for interpreters who can habitually receive the language of the body and blood of Christ by hearing with the ears of faith. Our souls do not develop Christ-likeness by actively interpreting the Supper as we participate in the event. Rather, we become more like Christ within the event (through Christ acting within us), and the event, the wedding banquet, is the thing itself, slightly veiled, yet beaming as brightly as the sun behind a cloud to those who have been given eyes to see.

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Wolfgang Musculus (1497-1563): The Eucharist, Anamnesis, & Sober Inebriation

This year marks the 45Oth anniversary of the death of Wolfgang Musculus, the famous 16th century theologian who was influential in the Reformation of the cities of Strasbourg, Augsburg, and Bern and whose Loci Communes (Common Places) was a very popular and influential theological work both on the continent and in England for hundreds of years after its first publication. I will be delivering a short address on Musculus this week in San Juan, Puerto Rico at the annual meeting of the Sixteenth Century Society Conference, thanks to the industriousness of Jordan Ballor who put all of the pieces together for a panel on Musculus at SCSC but due to unforeseeable circumstances did not come to fruition. Below is a brief excerpt of my presentation, “Cœna Mystica: Recollection and contemplation in the Eucharistic theology of Wolfgang Musculus”:

Musculus

As Gottfried Locher convincingly argues in Zwingli’s Thought: New Perspectives, Zwingli’s concept of “memory” that is crucial to his eucharistic theology, should not be thought of as univocal with natural memory or recollection. Rather, Locher argues, recollection for Zwingli is more akin to Plato’s concept of anamnesis, propounded from the mouth of Socrates in the dialogues of the Meno and Phaedro.  By means of these dialogues Plato affirms the famous theory that human souls existed in the World of Forms prior to their embodiment, that embodiment has clouded the mind of its previous knowledge, and that one must turn inward away from the senses by means of recollection in order to retrieve this knowledge. Thus, as Socrates explains, all learning is recollection. This concept was adopted by Augustine, who avoided the heretical notion of the preexistence of souls but maintained the concept of recollection as a turn inward to the Truth or Christ who dwells within the soul (cf. Augustine, De Magistro).

The first page of the first chapter of the English translation of Musculus's 'Common Places' of 1563
The first page of the first chapter of the English translation of Musculus’s ‘Common Places’ of 1563

In his commentary on Matthew (In Evangelistam Matthaeum Commentarii, 1562) Wolfgang Musculus seeks to clearly differentiate his own theology from any eucharistic theology that would hold the sacramental signs to be merely symbolic or figurative or those that consider the ceremony of the “mystical supper” (‘cœna mystica’, a phrase adopted from the 1st Helvetic Confession) to be a mere memorial. Rather, he argues, with much reference to the writings of Bernard of Clairveaux that spiritual “recollection” is analogous but not univocal to natural memory. He explains that natural memory is powerful in that the soul is ‘lifted up’ [rapitur] by memories and ‘absorbed’ [absorbetur] into them, as the memory of a lost friend moves one to sadness and longing. The recollection that occurs in the Eucharist is similar to natural recollection, yet it differs in that the memories recalled are not purely natural and the result of the recollection is not an emotional experience but one that transcends the body. He explains:

(English translation below)

Si igitur tantae virtutis in rebus mundi est memoria, qua ratione non idem posset in animis Christi fidelium, qui credunt se morte Domini redemptos? Quomodo hic non raperetur animus totus, imò totus simul homo in hanc Christi dilectionem expendendam, laudemque debitam reddendam, ut iam non in terris, sed revera extra se in Christum translatus, dicere possit: Vivo iam non ego, sed vivit in me Christus? Ex hac scilicet Dominicae mortis memoria convalescit fides, spes, charitas, patientia. Ex hac refocillatur totus internus homo. Hinc animus rapitur ad agendas redemptori gratias. Hinc gaudium est & pax pacatae iam conscientiae, & custodia simul vitae nostrae, qua cohibeamur, ne denuò peccemus. Quis ergo dicet rem nihili esse, quae tantarum est virium? … Exemplo sunto duo euntes in Emaus, quorum corda ardebant, ubi de Christo, per Christum quidem, sed incognitum, sacrae scripturae expositionem audiebant. Orandum ergo pro fide vera & integra Christi dilectione. Illae si fuerint, sentiemus istam Dominicae memoriae efficaciam, abibimus alacriores ad quaevis adversa fide firmiores, ad veram pietatem instructiores. Excidet animis nostris omnis mundi vanitas, obtinebit sola Christi dilectio. In illo iucundabimur & pascemur, in illo vivemus & moriemur.

In Evangelistam Matthaeum Commentarii, 616.

(Translation)

If, therefore, memory is of such great power with regard to the things of the world, for what reason would the same not be possible with the souls of the faithful in Christ, who believe themselves to have been redeemed in the death of the Lord? How does this not lift up [raperetur] the whole soul, or rather, seize the whole man at once in the love of Christ that he seeks and in the appropriate praise that he returns, with the result that, not being on the earth but actually having been taken outside of himself [extra se] and transferred into Christ, he can say: It is no longer I who live but Christ lives within me? Because of this, that is the memory of the death of the Lord, faith, hope, charity, and patience gain their power. Because of this the whole internal man is revived. Hence the soul is lifted up [rapitur] to give thanks to its redeemer. Hence joy is both the peace of the pacified conscience and the protection of our life, by which we are restrained that we may not sin again. Therefore, who will call this nothing which is one of the greatest powers? […] An example [of the power of memory] are the two [on the road] to Emmaus, whose hearts burned when they heard the exposition of the holy scriptures about Christ, indeed through the help of Christ though they did not know it. If these things come to pass, we will understand the efficacy of this memory of the Lord, we will go forth more courageous, more firm in faith against every enemy, more skilled in true piety. [This memory] will destroy the vanity of the whole world in our souls, it will prevail by the love of Christ alone [sola Christi dilectio]. In this [memory] we will be delighted and fed, in it we will live and die.

For Musculus  the recollection of Christ in the soul requires faith. Faith permits the believer to pierce beyond the veil of the sacramental signs, yet the desire of love (dilectio) is also a requisite element. In his locus on the supper in his Loci Communes Musculus notes that only those who partake with a “greedy desire of the grace of Christ and heavenly food” may eat of it. This desire, though already imparted through baptism, is rekindled in the Eucharistic ritual. Through the hearing of the words “sursum corda” the heart of the believer is made to ascend to heaven. The “uplifting” of the heart is triggered, for Musculus, by means of the act of remembrance or recollection. He argues that faith must be placed in the specific words “do this in remembrance of me.” By remembrance “the soul is called away from earth into heaven.”

Musculus uses the common language of the “husk” and “kernel” to describe the recollection of Christ in the supper. The faithful “chew the cud [ruminant] and renew in themselves Christ who dwells within them, and are fed and filled with his spirit.”  In Plato’s Phaedrus Socrates describes those who have been captured by love (eros) as being taken outside of themselves through the recollection of the god which they imitate. For Musculus the love of Christ is rekindled in the hearts of the faithful when they recall his loving death and promise of future blessings because, “He that loves is more perfectly where he loves.”

In describing the “mystical supper” Musculus uses a variety of terms that were widely used by Medieval mystics. His use of mystical language (rapitur, absorbetur, translatus extra se, etc.), however, should not lead one to conclude that he held the body and the material world in disdain. Rather, Musculus was an avid reader of the Greek fathers – e.g., he refers to the Eucharist as synaxis in several places. Gregory of Nyssa used the phrase “sober inebriation” to describe the sort of disembodied exstasis of Christian experience. Just as the disciples at Pentecost were accused of drunkenness because of their reaction to an outpouring of the Holy Spirit yet were fully conscious and sober, so those who are united to Christ are simultaneously in the body and transferred to heaven all while maintaining an awareness of both realities. Those who participate in the Eucharist, for Musculus, do not lose their senses but transcend them by a sober awareness of themselves and Christ who is recalled out of the soul by faith and love after the hearing of the words of divine institution, Sursum corda (Lift up your hearts)!

Simone Porzio (†1554): An Aristotelian between Nature and Grace

Paul Grendler reviews a recent monograph from a work by Eva del Soldato on Simone ImagePorzio (Simon Portius in Latin) that sheds a bit more light on this important Renaissance philosopher. Portius was infamous in the 16th century for denying, along with his teacher Pietro Pomponazzi, that one may prove the immortality of the soul by rational demonstration. Needless to say there was little tolerance for this view in the rest of Europe at that time where his conclusion that reason cannot prove the immortality of the soul was seen as the equivalent of denying the immortality of the soul outright. Soldato, Grendler tells us, explains that Porzio’s philosophy was a bit more complicated than that:

Born in Naples, Porzio studied with Agostino Nifo and obtained doctorates of arts and medicine in 1520 and theology in 1522 at the University of Pisa. He taught at the University of Pisa until 1525, then natural philosophy at the University of Naples from 1529 to 1545, natural philosophy at the University of Pisa from 1545 to 1553, after which returned to Naples and died in 1554. In his second Pisan period he enjoyed the favor of Duke Cosimo I and participated in the activities of the Accademia Fiorentina, where he associated with Giambattista Gelli, who translated some of his works into Italian.

It is true that Porzio was a strict Aristotelian who argued strongly that the soul was mortal. But in other works, including lectures available only in manuscript, he addressed different topics and offered a wider range of views. In treatises on love and Petrarch’s poetry Porzio saw love in Aristotelian terms as unrestrained passion and a form of living death in which man loses reason. He concluded that the solution was faith in Christ, and the gift of faith depends on grace. In several short works based on Aristotle’s zoological works Porzio demonstrated his philological skill and knowledge of the ancient Greek commentators on Aristotle. He argued that the pseudo-Aristotelian work De coloribus was written by the ancient Theophrastus. In a treatise on pain he argued that pain came from the dispositions of soul and body rather than sense experience.

Porzio exhibited a strong fideistic tendency in several short works that dealt with ethical-theological concerns. In a short treatise on celibacy, Porzio wrote that although marriage is the solution for concupiscence, it was different for a priest, who was higher than a common man. Porzio showed the influence of Desiderius Erasmus and, possibly, evangelical views coming from Juan de Valdés, in treatises on prayer and the Our Father. In his Pisan lectures on Aristotle’s De anima Porzio expressed doubt about purgatory, for which there was no scriptural support, and Lenten fasting.

~ Paul F. Grendler, “Un aristotelico tra natura e grazia (review),” The Catholic Historical Review 98:2 (April 2012).

The Afterlife: A Potential Problem in Aquinas’s Psychology

Thomas Aquinas’s attempted solution to the problem of substance dualism (i.e., the mind/body connection) involved his use of Aristotelian language to define the intellectual soul as the “form” of the body. Yet, in order to account for the separated state of the soul after death Thomas was forced to stretch Aristotle’s concept of “formal substance” to explain the Christian teaching on the soul’s disembodied afterlife. He maintains that the soul is the intellectual form of the body but is also per se subsistens (existing on its own) and that the agent intellect does not make use of any bodily organ in the act of intellection. Krista Hyde, in a master’s thesis submitted to the University of Missouri at Saint Louis, makes note of Aquinas’s attempt to connect the mind and body in one substantial form but also points out the metaphysical problem that this causes:

In this way, Aquinas reframes the mind-body connection and escapes the interaction problem, but this opens him up to another, potentially fatal, flaw. The weakness of his argument is that it is not clear how such a soul could separate from the body and survive its death, despite his protestations that this act of the body is also substantial. Aquinas maintains that the human soul is an abstract form and a concrete particular thing. He has accounted for the soul as the form of the body. It is intuitive, however, that such forms would have to be Platonic (that is, an incorporeal, abstract idea, having the highest level of reality and to which humans have access only through the world of perception and sensation) if they can be said to depart from the body and remain in existence with some function until the time of the resurrection and judgment, as required by Christian doctrine. Aquinas, of course, would never accept his philosophy as Platonic, especially on this account, because he insists that matter is for the edification of the soul. Plato maintains that the soul simply “uses” matter, but that matter is unnecessary.

If the soul is a state, it must be one that can exist apart from that which bears it. Though the concept of the free radical is helpful as an illustration of the soul as form, it fails to exemplify this aspect; the free radical is not immaterial. The soul as organizing force of the body may be fatal to Aquinas’s psychology. If the soul is seen as a sort of genetic code or as software to the body’s hardware, however, it may be possible to imagine its survival in an immaterial state, to be employed (later, during the afterlife) in organizing prime matter once more.

A counter-objection might suggest that the soul survives between death and resurrection, but is “activated” again upon the resurrection. It does not seem likely that Aquinas would be willing to accept that the soul is totally incapacitated until Judgment, since he insists that the soul retains its proper operations: will, intellectual memory, and understanding.

~ Hyde, Thomas Aquinas: Soul-Body Connection and the Afterlife, pp. 29-30.)

An interesting note to add to this is that many of Aquinas’s followers did move in a more Platonic direction after his death. Fast-forward to the 15th century and one can see with Marsilio Ficino a student of Aquinas’s thought who turns to the original sources of the Platonic tradition to explain this very problem. He argues that the soul uses various vehicles (pace Proclus) and thus maintains its formal functionality even when separated from the body. Ficino’s solution is no less problematic, however, (it does not fully explain the necessity of the soul’s embodiment) and begs the question of whether the immortality of the soul can be proven philosophically without at the same time directly appealing to such doctrines as the hypostatic union of Christ’s natures as found in the Chalcedonean definition. Whether Hyde’s proposed solution with regard to the soul as “software” or “genetic code” of the body is helpful is, of course, up to the reader to decide.

Pseudo-Dionysian Biblical Exegesis

Image
“Dionysius the Areopagite Converting the Pagan Philosophers” by Antoine Caron (French, 1521 – 1599), Oil on panel

If you know anything about Pseudo-Dionysius you will know that his works, aside from the Bible, were the most studied works of the Medieval period. Though certain works of Augustine were just as influential, Augustine’s complete works did not become available until the 14th century. Even Aquinas, known for his devotion to Aristotle and Augustine refers to Pseudo-Dionysius more than any other author in his opera. Among Protestants, Dionysius never carried as much authority as with other Christian traditions, primarily because Valla’s proof of forgery was unanimously accepted by all of the Reformers. Also, Luther’s and Calvin’s criticisms of “that Dionysius whoever he was” mentioned the latter’s seemingly unbridled devotion to Platonic philosophy, placing him at odds with their renewal of biblical exegesis.

Modern research on the Corpus Dionysiacum, however, through the use of modern tools of textual criticism has displayed a more careful reading of the Pseudo-Areopagite. My point here is not to summarize the entirety of this research but to point out the curious mixture of biblical and Proclian exegesis within Dionysius’s works. István Perczel, for instance, makes an interesting point re: Dionysius’s eclectic synthesis:

It is quite obvious that the structure of the Dionysian Corpus imitates that of the New Testament. We have in Dionysius three « synoptic Gospels », so to speak: the Divine Names and the two Hierarchies; another « Gospel », the Mystical Theology which, like Saint John, treats the loftiest theological ideas, and, finally, letters clarifying the meaning of the « Gospels. » And just as the canonical Gospels tell the same story – that of Jesus the Son of God – from different aspects, so the four major treatises of Dionysius treat one common story – that of the manifestation of the divine in the world – from four different angles. In this context, it is all the more interesting to note that the structure of all four treatises is determined above all by the Platonic Theology of Proclus.   Perczel, “Pseudo-Dionysius and the Platonic Theology,” in Proclus et la Theologie Platonicienne: Actes du Colloque International de Louvain (13-16 mai 1998), A. Ph. Segonds and C. Steel, eds., (Leuven University Press, 2000), 491-531.

Based on this information, one may interpret the Dionysian enterprise as an attempt at Neoplatonic biblical exegesis similar in some ways to that of Augustine.

My Soul Is Not Me

Peter Leithart and others have noted the post-modern phenomenon of what I shall call the impenetrable ego. In his book on baptism Leithart notes that the idea that the ritual actually affects the person (socially, psychologically, ontologically) seems eerie because we have this idea that “who I am is deep down inside and cannot be touched by anything from the outside” – a sort of Neo-Stoicism.

Since I have occupied my summer with readings of Aquinas I shall not digress.  He had to fight with the gnostics as well (those who would radically separate mind and body, ego and flesh).  Aquinas does not fall victim to scholarly critiques of the Medieval theology such as that of N.T. Wright; who says that the popular idea that when we die our souls go to heaven never to return was invented by the Medieval church.  St. Thomas was waging war against the Albigenses (a.k.a. Cathari/Medieval Manichees). Fergus Kerr says we should read all of Aquinas with this context in mind.

Aquinas’s argument against the idea that “what is real in me is separate from matter” is fairly simple: Because the soul is only part of the person it cannot be spoken of as if it characterizes the whole. Sure, he also says that the soul is the form of the body – giving actuality to the body’s potential to exist.  I’m not denying the “superiority” of the soul or the fact that Aquinas did not diverge from the traditional teaching that the soul is separated from the body at death. My point is to note the anti-gnostic strain in Aquinas’s teaching on the soul.  He denies that phrases such as “my essence is the real me” or “who I really am is immaterial” can have any legitimacy.  In his De Ente et Essentia he confirms this:

For the phrase human being expresses it [essence] as a whole (not cutting out demarcated material but including it implicitly and indistinctly in the way we said a genus includes its differentiating characteristics): so individuals can be called human beings.  But the word humanness expresses it as a part (including in its meaning only what belongs to humans as humans and cutting out all demarcation), and so we don’t call an individual human being humanness.  This is why the word essence is sometimes asserted of things (Socrates, we say, is an essence of sorts) and sometimes denied (Socrates’ essence, we say, is not Socrates).

“Essence”, says Aquinas, can refer to an individual human being as a whole and also to the part of the individual that is purely immaterial.  Therefore, to say that the “essence” in the later sense is the real person is to say that part of the whole human is more human than the whole, which is a contradiction.  It is like saying “my arm is the real me” or “my face is more me than the rest of me.”  He demonstrates this more clearly in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:17-19:

For it is clear that the soul is naturally united to the body and is departed from it, contrary to its nature and per accidens. Hence the soul devoid of its body is imperfect, as long as it is without the body. But it is impossible that what is natural and per se be finite and, as it were, nothing; and that which is against nature and per accidens be infinite, if the soul endures without the body. And so, the Platonists positing immortality, posited reincarnation, although this is heretical. Therefore, if the dead do not rise, we will be confident only in this life. In another way, because it is clear that man naturally desires his own salvation; but the soul, since it is part of man’s body, is not an entire man: my soul is not me; So that even if soul achieves well-being in another life, that doesn’t mean I do or any other human being does. Moreover, since it is by nature that humans desire well-being, including their body’s well-being, a desire of nature gets frustrated.

He confirms here that a soul detached from the body is an incomplete human being. Therefore, neither the soul by itself nor the body is the true source of a person’s identity; rather, the composite body-soul which is the human being.  As John Nevin says, “The soul to be complete to develop itself at all as a soul must externalize itself, throw itself out in space; and this externalization is the body.” (Mystical Presence, pp. 161, 162)

Who Needs the Forms?

The whole realist/nominalist argument among the Medieval philosophers often seems arcane and pedantic to us post-moderns.  I mean, who cares if the form is in the thing or somewhere else?  The whole idea of a form in things is way too “spooky.” Reality is given to us; we don’t need forms right?  Well, without answering that question directly I must point out that the import of the Medieval argument between the realists and nominalists can be seen when we realize that they were seeking an answer to the same question with which we are often plagued; the question, “How do I know that what I believe about reality is true?” Pilate asked a similar question to Jesus, recorded in John’s Gospel 18:38:  “What is Truth?”  

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John 18:38

Obviously, Pilate was not asking Jesus how one comes to know the essence of a thing, but I can’t help but notice the irony of the situation.  St. Thomas also noticed – it caused him to get sidetracked in his commentary on this Gospel. Here’s what he had to say:

Apropos of this [Pilate’s] question, note that we find two kinds of truth in the gospel. One is uncreated and making: this is Christ: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6); the other truth is made, “Grace and truth came [were made] through Jesus Christ” (1:17).  By its nature truth implies a conformity between a reality and the intellect. The intellect is related in two ways to reality. An intellect can be related to things as a measure of these things; that would be the intellect which is the cause of these things. Another intellect is measured by things, this would be an intellect whose knowledge is caused by these things. Now truth is not in the divine intellect because the intellect is conformed to things, but because things are conformed to the divine intellect. While truth is in our intellect because it understands things, conforms to them, as they are. And so uncreated truth and the divine intellect is a truth which is not measured or made, but a truth which measures and makes two kinds of truth: one is in the things themselves, insofar as it makes them so they are in conformity with what they are in the divine intellect; and it makes the other truth in our souls, and this is a measured truth, not a measuring truth. Therefore, the uncreated truth of the divine intellect is appropriated, especially referred, to the Son, who is the very concept of the divine intellect and the Word of God. For truth is a consequence of the intellect’s concept.

Pilate’s question about Truth interrupted Aquinas’s train of thought.  Perhaps he asked himself the same question and needed to reiterate it in relation to what he saw in the text – a man asking Jesus, “What is Truth?”  Aquinas immediately thought to himself that Truth is a conformity between reality and the intellect. But that’s not all.  Man’s conception of Truth cannot be all there is.  This would mean that Truth is relative. There has to be one who establishes Truth, one who makes the things in his mind exist in reality as they are in his mind.  This One is God and his Son is the eternal Idea who sustains the life of all things. This is where the forms come in – the essence/quiddity/nature of things.  If God makes them the way he thinks them then they are true. If they are true then they cannot change. If they do not change then they cannot be reduced to matter.  Therefore, we need the forms.  We need our immaterial minds to get to the immaterial thing behind the thing.  We need the “spooky” stuff.  The Medievals knew this (some of them liked it way too much).  I fear that we’ve become too materialistic to recognize it.