Part II: Marion on Aquinas and Onto-theo-logy

As mentioned in the previous post, in Marion’s more recent work, St. Thomas escapes all three characteristics of onto-theo-logy. Regarding the first characteristic, viz., inscribing God within the domain of metaphysics, Thomas is “acquitted” because for him (unlike Scotus and Suarez) esse commune (common or created being) is the proper object of metaphysics. Hence, God only factors into the consideration of metaphysics in an indirect way, viz., as the causal principle (Creator) of common/created being. For Aquinas in contradistinction from the thinkers mentioned above, God and creatures are not conceived under a common univocal concept of being.

Regarding the second characteristic, viz., that the “God” establish a causal foundation of all the common entities (which turns out to be a reciprocal founding of sorts), Thomas is likewise “not guilty” because of the distinction he makes between esse commune and esse divinum. Esse as used in these two designations is not understood univocally (either metaphysically or predicatively), but analogically. That is, the “esse” in esse commune is received from God and is common to all created beings—beings that are esse/essence composites. In contrast, the “esse” of esse divinum has only one referent, viz., God who is the “act of being” and whose esse is identical to his essence. Thomas, then, given this distinction, upholds God’s transcendence. Though it is the case that Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy names God as the efficient cause of common being, he escapes the second characteristic of Heidegger’s critique because his understanding of causality in creation is asymmetrical. In other words, God (the “ground” of esse commune) does not stand in a reciprocal relation to his creation. Rather, the dependency is “one-way”—creation is wholly dependent upon God for its being and intelligibility, but God is in no way dependent on creation for either.

Regarding the third characteristic, Marion highlights two arguments of St. Thomas’ against the idea of God as causa sui. The first appeals to a logical contradiction that such a claim would involve. That is, given that nothing can cause itself, God cannot cause himself because God would have to exist prior to and in some way distinct from himself (p. 56). Secondly, (and Marion thinks that this argument is more significant), in order to maintain his transcendence as efficient cause (in the redefined Thomistic sense), God must “withdraw Himself from causality.” In other words, God exercises causality toward beings but he himself is not part of this causality—a causality extended only to created beings whose existence and essence are distinct and composite. Created, composite beings receive their esse from God whose esse and essence are identical. Stated in a slightly different manner (and basically the argument of the De ente), given that all created beings are esse/essence composites, there must be a first whose esse is his essence and hence whose esse is both wholly other from created esse and the principle (Creator) of created esse, lest we have an infinite regress. In this schema, causality only applies to created beings and clearly does not apply to God [pp. 56-57].

Marion ends the article by suggesting that even though Aquinas privileges being (ipsum esse) instead of the Good (as in the Dionysian tradition), there is still a way in which this may be interpreted such that Aquinas is exonerated from the onto-theo-logy charge. At this point many Thomists have concluded that Marion seems to suggest that we read Aquinas as promoting a radical apophaticism—God is esse in name only. In other words, because God’s esse is so wholly other than created being, it can be revealed or known only as unknown. As Marion explains, “this pure esse reveals itself in principle as unknowable as the God it names. God known as unknown—this implies that his esse remains knowable only as unknowable, in sharp contrast to the esse that metaphysics has essentially set in a concept to make it as knowable as possible” (p. 63). A few lines later, Marion writes, “[Thomas] does not think God in a univocal way according to the horizon of being. Or simply: the esse that Thomas Aquinas recognizes for God does not open any metaphysical horizon, does not belong to any onto-theo-logy, and remains such a distant analogy with what we once conceived through the concept of being, that God proves not to take any part in it, or to belong to it, or even—as paradoxical as it may seem—to be. Esse refers to God only insofar as God may appear as without being—not only without being as onto-theology constitutes it in metaphysics but also well out of the horizon of being, even as it is as such (Heidegger)” (p. 64). Such an interpretation would suggest that given the radical transcendence and incomprehensibility of God’s esse, Thomas’ naming of God ipsum esse should be taken as a negative name without any conceptual content; hence, Thomas’ understanding of the divine names, as well as his doctrine of analogy should be understood in a radically apophatic way. However, others[1] have argued that on Marion’s read Thomas’ doctrine of analogy, as well as the divine names, function phenomenologically and indeed reveal something truly (yet not exhaustively) about God. In other words, following Denys, the divine names are a kind of “iconic speech” that unfolds and discloses God to us in the context of the liturgy. Here (idolatrous) predication of God in the sense of defining God is ruled out and in its place a new discourse springs forth—the discourse of praise as the proper response to Him who makes Himself known as Goodness, as Love, as Gift.

[1] See e.g., Morrow, Derek J. “Aquinas, Marion, Analogy, and Esse: A Phenomenology of the Divine Names?” International Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 46, no. 1 (March 2006): 25-42.

Part I: Marion on Aquinas and Onto-theo-logy

Since I am scheduled to present on this topic for one of my classes at UD, I thought that I would revisit Marion’s take on St. Thomas as reflected in his article, “Thomas Aquinas and Onto-theo-logy.”[1]


In this article, Marion retracts a good deal of his former criticism of St. Thomas as found in God Without Being. Specifically, he withdraws his former claims that Aquinas’ naming God ipsum esse¬ makes an idol out of being, and that Aquinas is guilty of onto-theo-logy. So what is meant by onto-theo-logy? According to Heidegger onto-theo-logy characterizes the Western metaphysical tradition and is expressed as an attempt by philosophy to use conceptual systems in order to control and master Being (as well as God). Marion is sympathetic to Heidegger’s critique, yet he sees Heidegger making an idol out of Being. For the purposes of this article, Marion highlights three foundations at work in onto-theo-logy.

First, there is the Gründung, i.e., “the conceptual foundation of entity as such by being.” Whatever serves as the conceptual foundation—be it “God” or whatever—must be inscribed within the domain of metaphysics. That is, it itself must become thinkable as an entity (or according to a [univocal] concept of entity). To illustrate his point, Marion turns to one of the ways (there are other ways as well) in which Descartes exemplifies this Gründung. In Descartes, being is defined on the basis of thought. Consequently, being grounds entities conceptually, “to be is to think or to be thought” (esse est cogitari aut cogitare). All entities, including the “first” or “highest” rely on this foundation through being (p. 41), and all entities including the “highest” or “first” are thought according to a (univocal) concept of being. In sum, the first characteristic of onto-theo-logy amounts to inscribing God (as subject or object) within the domain of metaphysics and making God subject to a univocal concept of being.

Second, we have the Begründung. That is, “the foundation of entities by the supreme entity according to efficient causality.” Here we have a reciprocal grounding between the “first entity” and all other entities. That is, there is a reciprocal grounding between whatever serves as the “first entity” (e.g., Pure Act) and all other beings, and this grounding reciprocally perfects/establishes both the first entity and all other entities. E.g., according to Aristotle, beings “are” to the extent that they are in act. The “Unmoved mover” of Aristotle’s system is of course “Pure Act.” Here we find a kind of mutual “grounding” principle. That is, the Unmoved mover is not only the final cause toward which all beings move, but is established in a preeminent way by the (same) principle by which beings “are,” viz., by the principle of actuality (“to be is to be in act”). This principle founds the Unmoved mover as highest being, that is, as Pure Act, just as it establishes all other beings in so far as they are. Or returning to Marion’s Cartesian example, the ego as preeminent being thinks itself as res cogitans and therefore grounds its own existence. Likewise, it also “grounds in reason” the other entities “which are, only insofar as they are thought by it” (pp. 42-43). In sum, the “God” (or highest being) functions as the (efficient) causal foundation for all entities. This founding relationship is reciprocal, i.e., the “God” grounds beings and beings ground/establish God.

Third, there is the self-grounding of the ground or the causa sui. That is, “the foundation of the conceptual foundation by the efficient foundation” (p. 42). The preeminent being is defined by its function as causa sui. Here you have a supreme being that “grounds by grounding itself through itself” (p. 42). In other words, the conceptual foundation is grounded in the (efficient) causal foundation, which in the case of our Cartesian example is the ego or res cogitans. In sum, the “God” founds itself, just as it founds all other beings.

In the next post, we shall see how (according to Marion) Thomas escapes all three characteristics of onto-theo-logy.

[1] As found in in Mystics: Presence and Aporia eds Michael Kessler and Christian Sheppard, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 2003), pp. 38-74.

Kierkegaard on Suffering and Humiliation

“O Lord Jesus Christ, many and various are the things to which a man may feel himself drawn, but one thing there is to which no man ever felt himself drawn in any way, that is, to suffering and humiliation. This we men think we ought to shun as far as possible, and in any case that we must be compelled to it. But Thou, our Savior and Redeemer, Thou who wast humbled yet without compulsion, and least of all compelled to that humiliation in the imitation of which man discovers his highest honor; ah, that the picture of Thee in thy humiliation might be so vivid to us that we may feel ourselves drawn unto Thee in lowliness, unto Thee who from on high wilt draw all unto Thyself” (Søren Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity, p. 150).

Part VI: St. Augustine’s Encounter with Words and the Word

In agreement with Gadamer, Augustine did not conceive of biblical hermeneutics as akin to solving a math problem—a model which assumes a univocal, “flat” understanding of meaning (and reality) and denies an analogical, “symbolic” approach to meaning (and reality). In contrast with, e.g., a strict grammatico-historical hermeneutic (as instituted by B. Spinoza), the Church Fathers and medievals understood both Scripture and reality not “flatly” but multi-layered because both correspond to and reveal an Infinite Creator. As Henri De Lubac explains, the doctrine of the fourfold sense of Scripture—the historical, allegorical, moral or tropological and anagogical—“provided a framework of thought for numerous generations of Christians.” Interestingly, those who adopt a strict grammatico-historical “method” of interpretation tend to embrace only the literal or historical sense of Scripture. Likewise, those following this tradition claim to interpret Scripture in an “unbiased” manner, free from all prejudices and traditions. Postmoderns, of course, are very suspicious of such a claim. In contrast, as de Lubac indicates and Augustine seems to agree, the Church Fathers and medievals openly acknowledged their dependence on tradition and the interpretations handed down to the Church by the apostles and their successors. “Right from the beginning, in the first century of the Church’s existence, at the time of the very first generation of Christians, it was a matter of Scripture being read or the word of God being heard in the Church and interpreted by Tradition.” So we see that the Church from its very inception openly acknowledged her dependence on the interpretative authority of her leaders—Christ being the chief interpreter, who in turn instructed the apostles, and they in turn faithfully taught others. Moreover, neither the Church Fathers nor the medievals approached Scripture as just another human book or piece of literature to be studied or examined scientifically, much less as something to be dissected and treated atomistically. Rather, Holy Scripture was first and foremost understood as the very word of God, which having many parts is nonetheless, one story, written ultimately by One Author, and culminating in One Person, the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, instead of approaching Scripture as a collection of divergent and contradicting accounts, the Christian comes to Scripture as a unified whole—whose unfolding drama is permeated with Christ.

Does this mean that the apostles, as well as the Church Fathers and medievals were biased and came to the Scriptures with their interpretative goal (i.e., Christ) already in mind? Here again, perhaps Gadamer has something to add to the “conversation.” In stark contrast to a modern aversion to prejudice or bias as a hindrance to “objectivity,” Gadamer presents a positive view of prejudices in his understanding of hermeneutics. According to Gadamer, all of us come to the text with our own prejudices or “horizons” and these biases are not be understood as solely negative or as necessarily closing off understanding. Though it is the case that our prejudices or presuppositions can and do set limits on our interpretative endeavors, it is not the case that our prejudices are unalterable nor are they always active in a negative, limiting way. Rather, they can and do often have a positive or productive function and actually help to promote understanding. Addressing this positive aspect of our prejudices, Gadamer writes,

“Prejudices are not necessarily unjustified and erroneous, so that they inevitably distort the truth. In fact, the historicity of our existence entails that prejudices, in the literal sense of the word [pre-judgment], constitute the initial directedness of our whole ability to experience. Prejudices are our biases of our openness to the world. They are simply the conditions whereby we experience something—whereby what we encounter says something to us. This formulation certainly does not mean that we are enclosed within a wall of prejudices and only let through the narrow portals those things that can produce a pass saying, ‘Nothing new will be said here.’”

Until we engage a text (with an openness to being changed by that text) we are often unaware of our biases. Thus, it is through our dialogic encounter with the text that are prejudices are made evident to us—i.e., we must be open or “made open” to having our presuppositions laid bare, as well as to having our presuppositions altered or done away with completely.

Although it is the case as de Lubac observes that “Christian exegesis is an exegesis in faith,” unbelieving “systems” of thought likewise involve prejudices and (unproven) presuppositions. Yet, differing worldviews can be compared, analyzed, and tested so as to see which claims conform to reality and experience. Faith and reason for Augustine (and many postmoderns) are mutually influencing harmonies, not dichotomous dissonances. Certainly, it is the case that “an exegesis in faith” presupposes faith—faith that is a gift of God (and Augustine of course would wholeheartedly agree). Those who have been given this faith will find Christ in the Scriptures; those devoid of such faith will not. As we have seen, this was in fact Augustine’s experience. That is, prior to the gift of faith and a totus homo conversion, he was neither able to “see” Scripture aright nor to appreciate its depths. Yet, after receiving the gift of faith, his attitude toward Scripture changed dramatically. Indeed for the Church Fathers, as well as the Augustine and the medievals (and for those who see with the eyes of faith today), “Jesus Christ brings about the unity of Scripture, because He is the endpoint and fullness of Scripture. Everything in it is related to him. In the end, He is its sole object. Consequently, He is, so to speak, its whole exegesis.”

In sum, Augustine’s approach to Scripture contrasts sharply with a (strict) modern grammatico-historical biblical methodology, whereas premodern “hermeneutics” share a number of continuities with postmodern emphases. Given our current post-modern context, Christians of the 21st century should appropriate this “Egyptian gold” and continue the Augustinian tradition of “plundering.” Lastly, if Gadamer is right and “all of life is hermeneutics,” then perhaps what I have presented as a whole is not as fragmented as at first it might appear. That is, pre-judgments, interpretative traditions and a dynamic/analogical rather than a static/univocal understanding of the text (and reality) have all played decisive roles in Augustine’s various encounters with texts and individuals. Moreover, as we have seen from Augustine’s story, in his unconverted, dis-ordered state, his life was an enigma, full of instability and unrest. Even the best education—which included reading the classical authors and philosophers—was ultimately ineffective, as it lacked the power to transform Augustine’s whole person. Yet, when Augustine’s will is brought into alignment with Christ through the gift of grace, his restless heart is at last brought to a “place” of repose. Hence, for Augustine that which brings unity and purpose to all texts (sacred and profane), all relationships, and to reality itself is Christ—Caritas and Veritas Incarnate.


Augustine. Confessions. Trans., Maria Boulding. Hyde Park: New City Press, 1997.

De Lubac, Henri. Medieval Exegesis (Vol. 1): The Four Senses of Scripture. Translated by Mark Sebanc. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Philosophical Hermeneutics. Trans. and ed., David E.
Linge. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977.

__________________. Truth and Method. Trans. and revised, Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Continuum, 2004.

Martin, Thomas F. “Book Twelve: Exegesis and Confessio.” As found in A Reader’s Companion to Augustine’s Confessions. Eds., Kim Paffenroth and Robert P. Kennedy. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), pp. 185-206.

Part V: St. Augustine’s Encounter with Words and the Word

The Word In-Excess

Now that we have traced Augustine’s journey to his conversion, I want to spend some time discussing Augustine’s more humble orientation toward Scripture and the ways in which his hermeneutical practices have much in common with certain postmodern sympathies, and conversely, the ways in which Augustine’s approach to Scripture contrasts with modern biblical hermeneutics. As we have examined the various texts and persons to which Augustine had been providentially directed, we have seen how each experience (however circuitous it may have been) enabled Augustine to move toward his destiny. Not only lust, but perhaps more significantly, pride in its diverse manifestations, proved to be a hindrance in Augustine’s ability to ascertain truth. However, now as a mature Christian—in fact a leader of the Church—Augustine the Bishop perceives a profound depth in Scripture, which allows for multiple levels of meanings and even multiple true interpretations. For example, in book XII, Augustine, after reviewing a number of possible true interpretations for Gen 1:1 and emphasizing that charity must be keep in view in regard to our hermeneutical endeavors, writes,

“[w]hat does it matter to me that various interpretations of those words are proffered, as long as they are true? I repeat, what does it matter to me if what I think the author thought is different from what someone else thinks he thought? All of us, his readers, are doing our utmost to search out and understand the writer’s intention, and since we believe him to be truthful, we do not presume to interpret him as making any statement that we either know or suppose to be false. Provided, therefore, that each person tries to ascertain in the holy scriptures the meaning the author intended, what harm is there if a reader holds an opinion which you, the light of all truthful minds, show to be true, even though it is not what was intended by the author, who himself meant something true, but not exactly that?”

Interestingly, though Augustine states that he and others strive after the author’s intention, yet he also claims that it is not only possible but quite acceptable that true meanings be revealed (by God himself) that go beyond the mens auctoris. Here we might bring Augustine “into conversation” with Hans-Georg Gadamer. As David Linge explains, for Gadamer, the meaning of a text is not simply restricted to the intention of the author, nor is interpretation solely construed as an attempt to replicate the author’s original intention. This reflects in part Gadamer’s understanding of the text itself as something living and dynamic. Moreover, the text cannot be approached as if it were a math problem in which one and only one answer is correct. Nor should one attempt to come up with a method or formula that when applied produces the same result each time—such a model has more in common with scientific experiments than with a living, breathing textual dialogue. In addition, a hermeneutical theory that restricts the meaning of the text to the intention of the author is riddled with seemingly insoluble difficulties. Highlighting the tensions of such a theory, Linge writes,

“The basic difficulty with this theory is that it subjectifies both meaning and understanding, thus rendering unintelligible the development of tradition that transmits the text or art work to us and influences our reception of it in the present. When meaning is located exclusively in the mens auctoris, understanding becomes a transaction between the creative consciousness of the author and the purely reproductive consciousness of the interpreter. The inadequacy of this theory to deal positively with history is perhaps best seen in its inability to explain the host of competing interpretations of texts with which history is replete, and that in fact constitute the substance of tradition.”

Some try to explain away the multiplicity of interpretations by claiming that there is a kind “meaning-in-itself” which is univocal, yet its significance for interpreters varies over time. This, however, is unsatisfactory as it is clear that interpreters within the same tradition in different historical epochs have disagreed not merely in the significance or application of the supposed univocal meaning of a text but in what they thought they saw in the very same text. Rather, than limit the meaning of a text solely to the author’s intention, Gadamer understands the text as having an “excess of meaning” upon which tradition builds.

Elucidating his position, Gadamer writes,

“Every time will have to understand a text handed down to it in its own way, for it is subject to the whole of the tradition in which it has a material interest and in which it seeks to understand itself. The real meaning of a text as it addresses the interpreter does not just depend on the occasional factors which characterize the author and his original public. For it is also always co-determined by the historical situation of the interpreter and thus by the whole of the objective course of history … The meaning of a text surpasses its author not occasionally, but always. Thus understanding is not a reproductive procedure, but rather always also a productive one… It suffices to say that one understands differently when one understands at all.”

At this point, some might object that such a view opens itself up to charges of relativism or a kind of hermeneutical anarchy. However, these conclusions do not necessarily follow—in fact, in no way did they follow for Augustine (and the premodern interpretative tradition) who, as we have seen, accepts the idea of a surplus of meaning beyond the intention of the author. For Augustine, the fact that we have a multitude of true interpretations and levels of meaning in Scripture indicates the infinity and incomprehensibility of the Referent to which these signs point—not that truth is relative or that there is no truth.

In the next post, we shall compare and contrast various aspects of premodern and postmodern biblical hermeneutics with those of modern practices.

Part IV: St. Augustine’s Encounter with Words and the Word

Augustine and St. Paul: A Conversion (of the Whole Person) to Christ

Early in book VIII, Augustine writes that he no longer desired “greater certainty” about God, “but a more steadfast abiding” in Him. “I was attracted to the Way, which is our Savior himself, but the narrowness of the path daunted me and I still could not walk in it” (p. 184). Augustine then describes what continued to keep him from a more steadfast abiding, viz., his “bondage to a woman.” In other words, Augustine’s intellect had in a sense found a (temporary) resting place, but his will had not. When we finally reach the famous garden scene, we find Augustine in a state of spiritual turmoil—on the one hand, longing to embrace Christ more intimately, yet lacking the power to do so. As Augustine’s struggle becomes so great that he can no longer conceal his inner chaos, he bursts out in tears and pleads with God to forgive his sins. Then, while sitting in the garden (clearly an image of the garden) weeping, he hears the voice of a child singing, “tolle lege, tolle lege.” Augustine interpreted this as a command from God himself, so he opened St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and read the first passage on which his eyes fell, “[n]ot in dissipation and drunkenness, nor in debauchery and lewdness, nor in arguing and jealousy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provisions for the flesh or the gratification of your desires [Rom 13:13-14]” (p. 207). Having read these words, Augustine had neither desire nor need to read further. “No sooner had I reached the end of the verse than the light of certainty flooded my heart and all dark shades of doubt fled away” (p. 207). Whatever happened in this encounter with St. Paul—and everything points in the direction of a super-natural conversion—Augustine is now able to embrace Christ fully, not only granting intellectual assent to various teachings about Christ, but with his heart and will he now gives himself in humble submission to live for Christ. Here again, we have a (providential) encounter with a text and ultimately with a Person, and this time Augustine is forever changed. From this point on, Augustine’s attitude toward Scripture exhibits great humility, as he realizes the impossibility of circumscribing an infinite God within finite means (e.g., signs).

Augustine. Confessions. Trans., Maria Boulding. Hyde Park: New City Press, 1997.