Henry of Ghent – Trinitarian Theology

Posted in Biblical Studies, Philosophy with tags , on April 23, 2013 by taylorvincentroche

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrine that has sparked debate from its very conception. Disagreements over the constitution of the Trinity and the distinct composition of the three Trinitarian persons are quite familiar in the Church from the centuries directly following its birth all the way to contemporary times. There have been no shortage of theories, models, and analogies attempting to describe this uniquely Christian doctrine. Always existing along side of these models and theories is, Reason, the Creeds of the Church, and Holy Scripture itself. Each model or view of the Trinity must take each into account, weighing how much authority to grant to each and then begin the quest to give an account of such curious arithmetic as three equals one. Some have chosen Scripture alone. Others have included Reason along with Holy Scripture. Perhaps the most admirable attempts have taken all three, Reason, the Creeds (or orthodoxy), and Scripture, and though perhaps not assigning each category equal status, have sought a description of the Trinity that satisfies all three. In this paper I seek to describe one of those models. It is the model of Henry of Ghent, a thirteenth century scholastic. I hope to not only describe Henry’s position, but also to offer some analysis of it, in the end defending it as sufficiently satisfying all three “categories”, Reason, the Creeds, and Scripture. The best way to do this, I believe, is to start with a bit of history.

Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries there are roughly speaking two conceptions of how the Trinity is constituted. These two can be referred to generally as the ‘Dominican’ way (relation) and the ‘Franciscan’ way (emanation).  Dominican theologians follow the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, while Franciscan theologians draw from St. Bonaventure.

Late thirteenth century scholastic Henry of Ghent also contributed significantly to the Franciscan ‘emanation’ account of the Trinity, and it his developments that will be considered here. However before this can be done it is necessary to give some background on specifically the similarities and differences of the two views, in order to better understand the moves that Henry makes. I will begin with a brief survey of the Dominican conception of the Trinity, and after that an introduction into the Franciscan understanding as a segue into Henry’s own position.

I cannot however summarize both views without first pointing out the similarities between each view. Remember the primary concept in question is how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are unified as one, and yet distinct as three persons. Both the Dominican and Franciscan views agreed that each divine person was constituted.

This is to say that each person of the Trinity is made up of both a communicable essence and an incommunicable personal property or characteristic.

The debate arises however, over the nature of this ‘personal property’ (proprietas personalis). It is of course necessary that whatever this personal property be, it result in a real distinction between the persons, as described in the creeds of orthodox Christianity. So according to Richard Friedman in “Medieval Trinitarian Thought from Aquinas to Ockham”, “The three divine persons, then, according to both the relation and emanation account, are essentially identical (i.e., they share completely the same divine essence) apart from one difference, which is the unique personal property that makes each of the persons distinct from the other two persons.”

As I have previously said, the personal characteristic must bring about a real distinction, but not “an essential distinction.”

Both sides make special use of Aristotle’s categories, specifically the category of relation. The relational, or Dominican account focuses in on what they term ‘opposed relations’, holding that the relation between Father and the Son is a real distinction capable of providing the kind of distinction necessary in the persons of the Trinity.

The relation account of personal distinction claims that the Father and the

Son are personally distinct in God since the Father is the Father only because

he has the Son. If the Father did not have the Son, then he would not be the Father.

If the relations between them are real and not mere mental constructs, then the

Father and the Son must be distinct in some way – not distinct essentially, but

distinct in persons.



So the relation account holds that the personal properties spoken of earlier, are in fact the relations between the members of the Trinity. However, those defending an emanation view of the Trinity proposed a different nuanced understanding of relations, again built firmly upon Aristotle’s categories.

Among the different types of relations Aristotle describes, there is the relation of producer to product.

Here Aristotle describes the relationship between a father and a son. However, Aristotle points out that logically prior to any discussion of a relation, the product must have been produced. That is to say, there is no point in talking about a father’s relationship to his son before he actually has a son. This led emanation theologians to reason that “divine relations are logically posterior to (and dependent upon) the divine productions.”

So the emanation theologians sought the incommunicable or personal property somewhere else, specifically that from which they get their name, the way the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit originate. According to Friedman, “On the emanation account of the distinction or constitution of the persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are the very same divine essence in three irreducibly distinct ways, the way that each one emanates or originates (proceeds).”

So as Friedman clearly states, it is not the opposed relations that grant distinction to the persons of the Trinity, but rather it is in how each originates or gets their being. So according the emanation view, the Father’s personal property is innascibility, because he is self-existent. The Son’s personal property is generation, because he is begotten, getting the divine essence from the Father. Lastly the Holy Spirit’s personal property is spiration, receiving the divine essence from both the Father and the Son.

By way of summary, one more concluding thought from Friedman,

The opposition of relations that was a key part of the relation account does

indeed exist between Father and generated Son, as well as between Father

and Son (as one spirator) and spirated Holy Spirit. Just as Aristotle’s example

of a father’s production of his son, in the emanation account the relations are

indeed opposed. Nevertheless, in contrast to the relation account, this opposition

does not play a central role; the stress in the later medieval emanation account

is on the three irreducibly distinct ways in which the persons originate: unemanated, emanated by way of nature, and emanated by way of will.

As Friedman acknowledges, relations do exist and play a role in the emanation account, but this role is of a different sort that in the opposed relation account. I will now turn my attention to the true topic of this paper, Henry of Ghent and his model of the Trinity. Henry fits in the emanation account but contributes significant nuances to the model. I will begin by summarizing Henry’s model in whole, and then work back to elaborating in more detail upon the necessary points. In order to do this, it is necessary to begin with St. Augustine’s psychological model of the Trinity which Henry incorporates into the emanation account.

The opening verse of the fourth Gospel have long played a significant part in the discussion of Trinitarian theology. “In the beginning was the Word (Logos, λογοσ) and the Word with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1 NRSV) This passage along with many others that refer to Jesus as the “Word” led St. Augustine to conceptualize the Trinity by using the analogy of human psychology. In Book XV of St. Augustine’s De Trinitate, St. Augustine distinguishes between a memory and a “begotten” word.

In order to do this he posited two nearly identical concepts, a mental word and knowledge in memory. This “mental word” could be thought of as the concept human beings form from memory of knowledge that is not explicitly being thought of prior to the this concept’s formation. Here the “dispositional knowledge”, as Friedman calls it, is identical to the “mental word” in every way save that the mental word is formed.

To make this more clear, consider one’s own intellectual memory. This “intellectual memory” carries with it many bits and pieces of knowledge that are yet unformed, indeed one could almost say that they lurk deep in the recesses of one’s mind and are rarely thought of or brought to the forefront of the mind. Yet when one is recalled or focused upon, it immediately becomes “formed” in such a way as to be identical to the once dispositional knowledge, yet distinct by nature of its formation. By way of this analogy St. Augustine came to describe the Son as the mental word that is identical to the knowledge that produced it, yet different in that it is formed or begotten.

This was St. Augustine’s attempt to answer that most central Trinitarian question, how the persons of the Trinity are both identical and yet distinct. With this model in mind, Henry sought to further explain both the constitutive properties of the persons and the divine production of the persons.

As I have already said, on the emanation account, the persons of the Trinity are distinct on the basis of how each persons originates or gets their being. More specifically, the Franciscan’s held that the Son “emanates by way of nature (a natural emanation like a child is born), and the Holy Spirit by way of will (a voluntary emanation like the way a gift is voluntarily given).”

Henry accepts this and seeks to combine this understanding with St. Augustine’s psychological model of the Trinity.

Henry would use St. Augustine’s work as well as the contemporary understanding of “intellect” to conclude that the Son’s production is an intellectual production. During Henry’s time the intellect was considered a “natural faculty.”

This is in contradiction to a voluntary or willful action. So Henry summarized, that since the Son emanates by nature, this must be an intellectual production. Again following suite with the Franciscan conception while nuancing it slightly, Henry further concluded that the Holy Spirit emanates by way of will or “zeal”.


Thus, for Henry, the Father is unemanated, the Son is emanated by way of

the divine intellect as a Word or Concept, and the Holy Spirit is emanated

by way of the divine will as “Zeal” (zelus). Indeed, Henry claimed that it is

the very fact that the Son’s emanation is an intellectual emanation that explained

why the Son is distinct from both the Father and the Holy Spirit.



As Russell Friedman explains in this excerpt, Henry understood the Son’s emanation as a literal Word. Consequently the distinction between the Son and the Holy Spirit is clear, though they both have their being from the Father, the Son’s production is intellectual and the Holy Spirit’s production is voluntary. Now by this point it should be somewhat clear how Henry sought to distinguish between the persons of the Trinity. However what should not yet be clear is how the beings are one. In order to examine this it becomes necessary to look more closely at Henry’s understanding of divine production and then subsequently the constitution of the divine persons.

Again, think back to what I said much earlier about the similarities between the Dominican and Franciscan conceptions of the Trinity, namely that each side believed the persons of the Trinity to be constituted. That is made up of both the divine essence and an incommunicable personal property. I will start with Henry’s thoughts on the divine essence and from there move to his writings on the personal properties of the persons. For Henry, the divine essence is something similar to “quasi matter”.

What motivates Henry to conceive to the divine essence as quasi matter is an attempt to avoid the view that the Son is created.

By making this moving it allows Henry to say that the Son is made from this divine substance, as opposed to the Son being created from nothing. Again referring to the first chapter of the Gospel of John, which affirms that through the Son all things were created, clearly something can not be its own creator, so Henry is motivated to avoid the view that the Son is created. So Henry turned to the divine essence to function as this substance from which the Son was made. According to Richard Cross, Henry thought of the divine essence as a kind of “substrate of the persons”, and in greater detail, “The essence is like a material constituent of an object that is non-identical with is constituent, and the non-identity is ground in a difference of form…between the constituent and the object constituted.”

This is to say that the divine essence functions something like an underlying substance in each of the persons, each person constituted both by this underlying substance and what Cross calls a “relevant form” or personal property. This bears true for each of the Trinitarian persons. So Henry affirms that a single and same essence (which is his understanding of the divine essence) can “constitute three distinct persons.”


So to summarize what I have up to this point, Henry believes that the Son is generated by means of intellectual production from the Father. By this the Son is distinguished from the Holy Spirit, who emanates voluntarily, from the Father and the Son. All three of these divine persons are constituted by a single essence, the divine essence, and a particular property. Now I have already begun to speak, at least at it pertains to the Franciscan view, what the personal properties are. Yet in order to understand this more completely, it is necessary to engage them further. In his major work, Summa Quaestionum Ordinarium, under Article 56 and 57, Henry addresses the properties of the persons specifically.

Beginning in Question two Article 56, Henry asks the question whether or not there are multiple or many properties in the same divine person. Henry answers this by saying that although there are only three constitutive personal properties in the divinity, “speaking more broadly… it is plain that two are properly in the Father, namely innascibility and generation, and one is commonly in the Father and Son, namely common active spiration.”

This leads Henry directly into his third question of Article 56, whether the properties constitute the persons? In order to answer this Henry seems to draw a distinction between two kinds of forms. Those that actually constitute a person, or in his words, “consist in giving being to a suppositum” and a second kind of form, one that comes “to what is already constituted in being.”

It is this move that allows Henry to claim that certain properties do in fact constitute the persons, while other do not. This can be seen in his following excerpt from Article 56,

Properties of the first sort are simultaneously constitutive and distinctive, and

there are three such properties which are called ‘personal properties’, namely

paternity, filiation, and passive spiration, as Richard [of St. Victor] says in De 

Trinitate book four chapter seventeen: ‘a personal property is that form which

each thing has being in that which it is, by which any one thing exists, and is

discrete from every other.’ And also in chapter eighteen” ‘And so in the divinity,

a person is nothing other than an incommunicable existing thing, having super-

substantial being from a personal property.’… A property of the second sort is

common active spiration, which is not constitutive of a person although it does distinguish two from three.



In this excerpt the first sort of property is the same as the first sort referred to earlier, namely a property that constitutes a person. The second sort is, as Henry clearly says, not constitutive of person yet nonetheless a property of that person. Now in the final question of Article 56 Henry asks whether a property with the essence constitute a person? To this Henry replies that yes, there are two things in every person, “a common nature by which something exists, and the other of which is a property by which something subsists.”

Again, this is to say that each of the divine persons is constituted by the divine essence and an incommunicable personal property. The personal property of the Father being paternity, the Son filiation, and the Holy Spirit active spiration. From here Henry turns his attention the properties themselves, and in particular the properties of the Father, which he discusses in the very next Article of his Summa, Article 57.

Henry begins with the question, whether being ungenerated is a property of the Father? To which Henry ultimately concludes that it is. Henry takes the proposition, “The Father is ungenerated,” to be a negation that can be reduced to “he has the divine essence from himself and not another.”

So, Henry concludes that this statement contains both a positive and negative claim. The positive claim is that the Father is self-sufficient, and the negative that he has nothing from another.

As I have already stated however, Henry has affirmed paternity as the constitutive property of the Father. So the question arises, is this a different property? Remember in Article 56 Henry has already concluded that it is indeed possible for there to be more than one property in the same divine person. Now having claimed that the Father has both the property of being ungenerated and also the property of paternity, Henry asks whether being ungenerated is a property other than paternity? In response to this Henry relies heavily on what he has already stated about the nature of the proposition, “The Father is ungenerated.”

It should be said, therefore, that one property of the Father is being

ungenerated, and another is paternity, since paternity is a property by

which he is Father and by which he has a positive reference to that one

who is from him, and being ungenerated is a property by which he has

a negative reference toward which he is not, according to the way it was

explained above. And so each property is the basis of dignity in the Father,

as has been said.



So it is clear that Henry affirms that in the Father there are two properties, being ungenerated and paternity. But this affirmation raises the question which is prior? Now given that the Father, along with the two other persons of the Trinity are eternal, neither property can be truly prior. Yet Henry does ask the question, whether being ungenerated is prior by reason to paternity? In regards to this question Henry thinks that there are roughly two ways to consider it. The second way, which yields the best chance of results, consists on considering the question on the basis of the subject matter which in this case is the deity.

When said of the Father, “being not from another,” Henry believes this entails the reverse. Namely that this statement posits “from whom there is another.”

So Henry says “not from another” which could be thought of as “being ungenerated” mutually posits “from another” with could be said in “paternity”.

So it appears that although, like I said previously, neither property can be said to be properly prior, the property of paternity is logically prior to being ungenerated.

So now that Henry has affirmed two properties in the Father, and granted logical priority to paternity it remains to be asked whether being ungenerated is a constitutive property of the Father? Henry takes up this question in the final section of Article 57.

Referring back to the logical priority of paternity, Henry argues that being ungenerated is not a constitutive property of the person. The reason for this being that paternity has been granted logical priority and considered “first” so Henry believes that paternity “necessarily is constitutive of the person, otherwise, then, this [paternity] would not be a property of the person but of the divine essence.”

In defense of his position Henry cites both Praepositinus and St. Augustine as being in agreement with him. This point in the paper seems like an appropriate place to momentarily return to the beginning and point out a significant place of distinction between the Dominican and Franciscan models of the Trinity. It should be clear at this point, that Henry claims “that the Father is the Father because he generates.”

This is in good keeping with the Franciscan trinitarian tradition. The significant point of difference for the Dominican tradition, who hold that the Father generates because he is the Father. So in conclusion of these two Articles in Henry’s Summa Henry examines the nature of personal properties and the personal properties of specifically the Father.

Now that a short summary of Henry’s work on the Trinity has been offered something should be said in regard to its theological orthodoxy. Indeed perhaps the most important question that could be asked of any Trinitarian model is, can it stand the weight of orthodoxy? The main point to consider here is does the model offer real distinction between the persons of the Trinity without resulting in tritheism? It is my belief that Henry’s model does this. Each one the divine persons of the Trinity is truly distinct from both others on the basis of their respective personal properties. In this paper I focused primarily on the properties of the Father, such discussion should have been sufficient to articulate how it is that the Father it truly distinct from the Son and the Holy Spirit. Henry has offered a model containing real distinction, as opposed to some version of modalism and the like. But what of the unity of the Trinity? Has Henry done a sufficient job describing the unity of the members such that his model does not result in tritheism? Again, it is my belief that he has done so. Although the bulk of this paper was spent on the distinction between the persons, Henry does has sufficient grounds for Christians to continue to claim monotheism. Each of the divine persons is constituted in part by the divine essence, the Father receiving the divine essence “not from another” but having the property of being ungenerated. The Son receives the divine essence from the Father, being generated by him. Finally the Holy Spirit receives the divine essence from both the Father and the Son. Thus there is but one substance and essence shared between three persons. This seems sufficient for claiming monotheism on the grounds that there is one single communicable divine essence that which all the persons share.

In conclusion it is my opinion that Henry of Ghent a tenable model for the Christian Trinity. His model offers sufficient explanation of both the oneness of the Trinity, as well as the distinctive three persons through his usage of the divine essence and personal properties. Christians seeking to understand or study the Trinity should consider Henry a viable place to start or to include in their search for understanding. Henry’s model is able to bear the weight of Reason (though perhaps more work must be done to demonstrate this), the Creeds, and Scripture.  Consequently his model should be considered a plausible explanation of the Trinity.

Do Analytic Statements Count as A Priori Knowledge?

Posted in Philosophy with tags , , on March 28, 2013 by taylorvincentroche

Knowledge, whether one can have it, and if so how one goes about getting it are possibly some of the oldest most popular philosophical questions. From the dawn of philosophy with Plato and Socrates, all the way to more contemporary philosophers like Edmund Gettier and Alvin Plantinga the quest for knowledge has continued to draw philosophers’ attention. Over the centuries countless proposals for defining and defending knowledge have been made, some more cogent than others. Indeed the sheer size and history of the conversation makes it a rather daunting one to attempt to join. Nonetheless that is exactly what I will attempt to do here. I will not however try to lend my voice to the entire breadth of the epistemic conversation. Rather I will attempt to constrain my thoughts to a much smaller sub-topic, that of a priori and a posteriori knowledge. Even more specifically my paper will focus on a priori knowledge dealing with necessary or analytic propositions, whether one can have it, and if so how. To begin I will start by defining terms and precisely what I mean to count and consider as candidates for a priori knowledge. Following this I will examine traditional arguments in support of a priori knowledge and critique those arguments, again restricting our conversation to necessary or analytic propositions. It is my intent and purpose to show that our common understanding of this kind of a priori knowledge and the arguments supporting it are insufficient and unconvincing for belief in this kind of a priori knowledge. It should be noted that even if my paper fully achieves proves its thesis, it will not in any way hold that a priori knowledge in general does not exist. In other words, cases of introspection and the like might still be counted as a priori knowledge. It is only propositions that are often called analytic or necessary propositions that will be demonstrated insufficient for being consider as a priori knowledge. Finally one more comment, throughout the course of this paper ‘experience’ will be referred to. This must be understood as describing sense experience unless explicitly stated otherwise. That is, experiences that have come to the subject directly through the five senses.

When it comes to defining exactly what a priori knowledge is, the task is somewhat more difficult than one might think. Most are willing to accept that a priori knowledge is simply knowledge that one has prior to any sense experience. Yet to use this as a definition is perhaps a bit overly simplistic. The truth of the matter is that while this definition might be acceptable for a quick and brief definition, it will not suffice for a paper of this nature. Often times when defining a priori, the proposed definition will include mention of a priori’s counter part, a posteriori knowledge. The first definition I am considering is the definition offered in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which contains the following:

The terms “a priori” and “a posteriori” are used primarily to denote the foundations upon which a proposition is known. A given proposition is knowable a priori if it can be known independent of any experience other than the experience of learning language in which the proposition is expressed, whereas a proposition that is knowable a posteriori is known of the basis of experience. For example, the proposition that all bachelors are unmarried is a priori, and the proposition that it is raining outside now is a posteriori.


Given here is both a definition and an example. I will focus on the definition here and the example later. First in order to be considered a priori the proposition must be knowable without any experience, however exclude is the experience of learning the language in which this proposition is expressed. I find this is a curious exclusion. Specifically because learning a language can be one of the most experience laden endeavors in a person’s life. However this exclusion allows for the proposition given as an example of a priori knowledge, all bachelors are married, to actually count as a priori. This is of course because if one could learn the English language, than one would inevitably know that all bachelors were unmarried even if they had never experienced bachelors or unmarried. These kinds of propositions are generally referred to as analytic propositions, because their truth is logically guaranteed. I will put this discussion on hold until later and turn my attention to another proposed definition.

This second definition can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “A priori justification is a type of epistemic justification that is, in some sense, independent of experience.” SEP (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) also states that there is some debate about whether or not a priori knowledge can be “only of necessary, or analytic, propositions, or at least ones believed to be necessary or analytic. Necessary propositions are ones that cannot be false.” SEP agrees with the first definition I offered, although making no mention of the exclusion of the language learning experience, it seems to imply it. It seems to imply it because the definition grants that a priori knowledge is knowledge that must necessarily be true, or must analytically be true. SEP goes on to say that a priori knowledge is “not based on perception, introspection, memory, or testimony.” But rather it is based on “reason alone, or based solely on understanding of the proposition being considered.” This last clause seems particularly interesting to me, particularly that the proposition being considered must be understood. The definition makes no mention of how the proposition is to be understood. This nuance will have to set aside for future examination. So here again it can be seen that the most often turned to examples of a priori knowledge are those that are considered necessary or analytically true. ‘All bachelors are unmarried’ is perhaps the most popular example of an analytic proposition.

There is one final definition I would like to mention only in passing, and that is the definition offered by Immanuel Kant, as quoted in SEP. According to SEP, Kant claims that a priori knowledge is knowledge “absolutely independent of all experience.” I mention this because as this conversation progresses, we will devote some time to what precisely “independent of all experience” means.  But for now, it seems that the most widely accepted definition of a priori knowledge is knowledge that does not find its basis in any sense experience beyond learning the language in which the proposition in question is stated. However, as is often the case in philosophy, there is one further point that should be made before progressing from this initial defining stage. That is namely this from SEP:

Further, a person can be a priori justified in believing, though, of course,

not know, what is false, and empirical evidence can defeat a priori justification,

and hence, knowledge. As a start, what seems crucial to a priori justification

is that it is based solely on understanding the proposition at issue.


Glossing over the first few statements and focusing in on the final sentence of this quotation which I have already briefly mentioned. Specifically that “a priori justification…based solely on understanding the proposition at issue.” This leads us to the already stated conclusion, that, the best case for a priori knowledge is a proposition that once properly understood, yields a necessary truth that is at least to some degree inescapable. An example of this might be the statement, all A’s are A’s. If you understand the english language than you will understand this is a true statement. You need not have any experiences of A’ness. Here we begin to move from our brief description of a priori knowledge into an examination of the sufficiency of these definitions. Here it seems that when SEP claims a priori knowledge is primarily based on understanding of the proposition at issue, what they have at heart is really similar to IEP’s  (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) “the experience of learning language”. In other words a person must understand the proposition in question. Even if they must learn the language that the proposition is stated in, if it is then possible for the proposition to be known independent of sense experience, than the proposition is considered a priori. Now the question arises, should we grant that learning a language is somehow exempt from counting as a sense experience? I submit here that we should not. To concede this to those who would have us believe in a priori knowledge would be intellectually irresponsible.

So here the conversation must turn briefly to philosophy of language. Specifically why should one think that learning a language does not count as an experience? After all, if the best examples of a priori knowledge is knowledge built on something that should be considered a sense experience, than perhaps we should be suspicious of a priori knowledge. In short, some of the best examples of a priori knowledge comes from necessarily true propositions. This is because many philosophers exclude learning the language the proposition is stated in as an experience that would consequently discount a priori  knowledge. If it can be show that learning a language, specifically the language that the proposition in question is expressed in, counts as a truly a posteriori experience than the very best examples of a priori knowledge rooted in necessary and analytic propositions will be debunked. For this reason we must examine linguistic knowledge and how it is that human beings acquire language, and specifically whether some of that process is innate or not.

There are a significant number of theories regarding how it is that people acquire language. Language is something that many philosophers feel sets the human race apart from any species of animals. In the late 1950’s two different theories of knowledge were offered. The first by psychologist B.F. Skinner, and the second by linguist Noam Chomsky. For Skinner language was learned “when children’s verbal operants are brought under the control of environmental conditions as a result of training by their caregivers.” Skinner believed that because children were either rewarded or punished for successful comprehension in “their various linguistic productions” their “verbal behavior gradually converge[s] on those of the wider language community.” Chomsky on the other hand disagreed quite strongly arguing that “language is stimulus independent and historically unbound.”

Language use is stimulus independent: virtually any words can be spoken in

response to any environmental stimulus, depending on one’s state of mind.

Language is also historically unbound: what we say is not determined by our reinforcement, as is clear from the fact that we can do and say things we have

not been trained to say.


I do not wish to be too sidetracked here, but only to point out very briefly two prominent theories of acquiring language. Neither theory, however, would be considered independent of sense experiences. Both Skinner and Chomsky’s theories require that children (or language learners) experience things with their five senses. Skinner believed this happened through a kind of reward/punishment relationship while Chomsky argued that children learned language from all kinds of things beyond the “meticulous care of their parents or caregivers”, including such activities as watching television or listening to adults converse. The point to gain from this is that both theories describe the language learning process as being significantly sense experience laden.

Now I want to  transition to what is perhaps a more pragmatic consideration, and I will do so by asking a question. Have you ever tried to describe color to a person blind from birth? Such and endeavor is utterly impossible. But why? Why is it impossible for a person blind from birth to fully grasp the concept of color? Well the answer seems somewhat obvious when you think about, because they’ve never seen a color. They have not a single sense experience of it and consequently cannot even begin to imagine what a color is. Words like blue, green, orange, and pink require some sense experience to comprehend. So it is obvious, that if you use the word purple in a sentence addressed to a person blind from birth, she will have no understanding of what you are describing. Purple, would be a word without meaning to her. This, I think, should be easy to understand and agree with. It seems to naturally follow that a person blind from birth would have no concept of color. But do all words function like this? Does every word require some sense experience? What of the statement we have already returned to many times, ‘All bachelors are unmarried’?

One might be tempted to think that the need for sense experience to understand a word only applies to words like blue and green and others like them. But before we make up our minds on this point let us consider the case of the proposition, all bachelors are unmarried. What does it mean to be a bachelor? Well it means to be unmarried. Fair enough, what does it mean to be unmarried? It means that one does not have a spouse, or is not married. We could most likely follow this pattern for quite some time, but eventually we would have to end in a one of two places. The conversation could only terminate in either a sense experience or a memory. Young children learn to understand the concept of married or unmarried on the basis of sense experiences. How do they do this? Well for one, they see that their mother and father sleep in the same bed. They watch as their parents interact and do life together. From these sense experiences they begin to understand what it is to be married. On the contrary side, they see their mother or father alone, and notice that this is different from their friend’s family whose mother and father live together and do all the things previously stated. And so they begin form the concept of being unmarried. Now someone might object that my requirements for knowing that all bachelors are unmarried is far too strong. Isn’t it enough to know that a bachelor is unmarried? Couldn’t someone who was never been exposed to parents or marriage of any kind still agree and know that all unmarrieds are unmarrieds?

I answer this by conceding that someone might indeed come to know all ‘unmarrieds’ (bachelors) are unmarrieds without having a sense experience of married or unmarried. In other words they would not necessarily have to arrive at the knowledge of married and unmarried exactly how I have just described it. But they would have to have another kind of sense experience. Firstly, they would have to have the experience of hearing that, “Bachelor means being unmarried.” Without this experience they could never arrive at the statement, ‘all unmarrieds are unmarrieds’. This relates back to the necessity of the proposition being understood, as mentioned during my section defining a priori knowledge. However, there seems to be no reason to exclude this experience, when it is clearly a sense experience and should thereby disqualify a proposition from being known a priori. If one must use sense experience to understand a proposition, how can knowledge of that proposition be said to be apart from sense experience? Secondly they would have to have some experience of similarity. In other words they would have to experienced objects that were the same or similar, and the only way to do this is to have a sense experience of two objects and judge between their attributes. For example, I know what an apple is. I have picked one up, smelled it, tasted it, seen it, and I have done this with more than one apple. So when I am faced with the proposition ‘all apples are apples’ I am immediately aware of its truth because I know what kind of thing an apple is and I know this because of my sense experience of apples. We must have some sense experience of objects being similar or even identical in order to grasp the concept of all unmarrieds are unmarrieds. As has been demonstrated, the only way to grasp this concept is through sense experience.

There is yet one more kind of proposition to consider and that is mathematical propositions. Mathematical statements are often cited as examples of analytic or necessary propositions. Having already discussed propositions like ‘all bachelors are married’, I will turn my attention to propositions such as 2+2=4. Is this kind of proposition any different? The answer is, of course, no. When a child is taught how to add they are often taught to use their fingers, or other objects as teaching aides. So at a basic level, 2+2=4 might be expressed as 2 [things] + 2 [things] = 4 [things]. We, or the child, might fill in any object in place of “things”. Math is ultimately knowable only because we have sense experiences of reality, and can at least conceptually tie our mathematical formulas to reality. For example, try to imagine you are not actually a living breathing, sensation experiencing being but instead simply a brain in a vat. You have no sense experiences of any kind. You neither hear, see, touch, taste, or smell. Given this state it is utterly inconceivable that you would know 2+2=4. Why? Because, put simply, you have no concept of two. “Two plus two equals what?” Would be something similar to the question, “shnorkelbots plus shnorkelbots equals what?” All this and I have said nothing of your ability to grasp addition apart from sense experiences. But ultimately there seems no need to. It is utterly apparent that apart from any sense experiences one could not know that 2+2=4 any better than one could know that all bachelors are unmarried.

T. Talbott’s Conception of Human Experience

Posted in Philosophy with tags , on February 19, 2013 by taylorvincentroche

This post is a continuation from my last post, which deals with the worldview of a Christian Universalist in his book, “The Inescapable Love of God.” Although this is not a particularly popular or well known book, this kind of thinking invades much of contemporary Christian thought, even if unitentionally or unknowingly. It can be incredibly dangerous, as will hopefully be demonstrated. My posts will break down Talbott’s worldview, dealing with aspects such as Non-Ultimate reality (my last post), Human Experience (this post), Salvation (future post), and Ultimate Reality (future post).


Before Talbott’s assumptions about Ultimate reality and Salvation are examined his notion of human existence will be analyzed. Any study of a particular concept of human experience can be broken down into two sub parts, human freedom and human failure. (Holmes) Each unique worldview offers, consciously or unconsciously, an account of human freedom along with an account of human failure. The worldview proposed by Talbott in his book The Inescapable Love of God is no different. However to help develop this his understanding of specifically an additional work of Talbott’s will be used. This work is a journal article published in the Reformed Journal during February 1983. The title of the article is “On predestination, reprobation, and the love of God.” This article will be of service as a supplement to understand Talbott’s thoughts on both human freedom and human failure.

The focus of Talbott’s article “On predestination, reprobation, and the love of God” is not primarily on the free will and failure of man but whether or not “there are persons whom God could redeem but chooses for one reason or another not to redeem.” (p. 12) As such the primary concern in the article for Talbott is the nature or God and his love. Nonetheless Talbott does make some fairly straightforward comments regarding human freedom in the opening stages of his article. He does this both positively and negatively, that is he makes a few positive statements of belief as well as vehemently denies at least one conception of human freedom. Though published in the Reformed Journal Talbott puts the Reformed doctrine of predestination under heavy fire. Defining the Reformed doctrine of predestination in John Calvin’s words as follows, “God’s eternal decree, by which he determined with himself what he willed to become of each man…Therefore, as any man has been created to one or another of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death.” This is so abhorrent to Talbott that he calls accuses followers of the Reformed tradition of “attributing Satanic qualities to God” and “confusing the Father in heaven” with “the Devil himself.” Talbott continues to offer a positive statement about what conception of free will he affirms. “For the record, I am a libertarian, to be sure, though not quite as confident a libertarian as I once was.” The libertarian conception of free will understands man’s will as strictly uncaused. Though God may perhaps influence a person’s choices that person’s will is ultimately free.

With this foundation laid, it is much easier to discern Talbott’s sayings in The Inescapable Love of God. The very first thing Talbott does as he begins to address human freedom in his book is to articulate what he calls the “limits of omnipotent power.” In this his thesis is that “not even God can causally determine our free choices.”(pg. 170) He elaborates in the following pages on what in means for human persons to be free. The definition Talbott settles on is that an action is only free if the performer of the action could have not performed the action. In other words had the ability to do something other than what was done. To leave the conversation here would run the risk of over simplifying Talbott’s point however. Consider the following,

For according to (William Lane) Craig, God willingly permits irreparable harm

to befall at least some of his loved ones, and my own view (Talbott’s) carries

no such implication. To the contrary, I assume that God permits no evil, however horrendous it may appear to us in the present, that he cannot eventually turn to

good; he permits no harm to befall his loved ones that he cannot in the end repair.

I also assume that, given a long stretch of time, the Hound of Heaven can over

come all obstacles that our wrong choices present and can thus achieve all his

redemptive purposes; in that respect, he is like the grand chessmaster who, though exercising no direct causal control over the moves of a novice, is nonetheless

able to checkmate the novice in the end. (183)


Through this illustration Talbott’s proposal becomes clear. Human failure is a constant turning away from God and continually acting in a fashion that is contrary to his will. This portion is consistent with the classical Christian conception of human failure. Human freedom is a rather nuanced understanding of humans’ ability to act or not act according to their own will, while all the time God rules supreme, accomplishing his purpose in the world without infringing upon mankind’s freedom.

In responding to Talbott’s thoughts on human existence there is a new objection unique to his conception of human existence as well as one old one which pertains to his entire worldview. First as has been raised already, throughout Talbott’s writings he assumes God’s love is identical in kind and degree to human love. Successfully refuting this notion, would essentially deal a crippling blow to the foundation of Talbott’s worldview. Secondly, perhaps the most serious objection, is that it appears that Talbott simply wants to have it both ways. This is to say that Talbott wants to assign absolute autonomy and freedom to humanity while all the while assigning a high degree of sovereignty to God. Referring back to the text quoted earlier, Talbott states that he assumes “God permits no evil” that he cannot in the end use to ultimately serve his (God’s) redemptive action. However returning back to the analogy Talbott offers, the chessmaster has no “causal control over the novice.” So which is it? Stating that God would not allow any evil he could not use to further his purpose implies there is evil that God is not permitting or allowing. Yet clearly Talbott states humans have ultimate freedom to both perform an action or refrain from performing that action. Again referring to Talbott’s own analogy, its not the the chessmaster is only permitting the novice to make moves that will eventually lead to accomplishing the purpose of the chessmaster, that is in the analogy putting the novice in checkmate. Rather the chessmaster merely responds to any and all moves the novice makes, by default permitting all of them. Now perhaps Talbott is merely being misunderstood and what he really means to say is that there is nothing (no action of any kind) that a person could perform, or neglect to perform, that God could not use for his redemptive purpose. But such a response only raises to new errors. First such a statement would seemingly remove all necessity for both moral development as well as moral living. However even more importantly it is questionable that on this view evil even exist. At the very least, given this response Talbott’s conception of evil would seem closer to a pantheistic notion of evil rather than a traditional Christian understanding. Given these objections, most particularly Talbott’s confusion of human freedom and God’s sovereignty, his notion of human experience does not seem coherent or sufficient.

“The Inescapable Love of God” by Thomas Talbott

Posted in Philosophy with tags , , on February 1, 2013 by taylorvincentroche

Over the next few months I will be seeking to understand and critique the writings of Dr. Thomas Talbott and Christian philosopher who is a self identified universalist. I will be examining one of his works, The Inescapable Love of God essentially seeking to critique his particular world view in a charitable fashion.  Below is the first installment of what is likely to be a fairly long series of posts, this post dealing with Talbott’s understanding of Non-Ultimate reality.



Given that the focus of “The Inescapable Love of God” by Thomas Talbott is primarily concerned with reshaping Christians’ understanding of God’s love, the topic of non ultimate reality is not brought up in a straight forward manner. One must hunt through numerous statements Talbott makes and piece these together to construct even a rough sketch of Talbott’s concept of non ultimate reality. The book is broken down into three general sections, first ‘Some Autobiographical Reflections’, second ‘Universal Reconciliation and the New Testament’, and finally, ‘The Logic of Divine Love’. Perhaps the most helpful statements in regard to Talbott’s view of non ultimate reality come in this first section, which he refers to as his autobiographical reflections. Indeed it is in this first section that readers get a quick glimpse into some of the driving motivations for Talbott’s worldview and the factors that led him to adopt this particular world view. Of course, given the lack of a direct statement regarding non ultimate reality by Talbott, some inferences will have to be made in order to see clearly what lies behind Talbott’s work.

In this first portion of the book Talbott describes, what some might consider, a crisis of faith. Without belaboring his story, it took him roughly around the time that he first truly encountered the problem of suffering and began to read church fathers and reformers such as Augustine and John Calvin. As he read specifically the writings of Augustine, he reaches the conclusion that contrary to Augustine and Augustine’s conception of God, Talbott himself could “never worship a God less kind, less merciful, less loving than my own parents… I could not imagine my parents refusing to will the good for anyone.” (pg. 8) The key here lies in Talbott’s comparing God’s love and God’s actions to his parents. This relates to the discussion about non ultimate reality because distinctions between humans and God are rough ways of distinguishing between non ultimate reality and ultimate reality. In other words, here readers are allowed their first look at Talbott’s distinction between the physical and non physical. Now turning back to his statement it is easy to see that there is no real distinction between the two, at least in regard to the concept of love. From the very onset, Talbott accepts that his parents are loving and consequently if God acts in a way contrary to how he believes his parents would act in a similar situation, than God is not loving. This might seem like a small thing given that this only pertains to the concept of love. However the concept of love is the most essential concept in Talbott’s book and one would think that Talbott would at least consider the possibility that God does not relate to humans exactly how humans relate to humans.

The reason this seems like something Talbott would want to consider is because ultimately his opponents are left with an easy way out. For instance they might simply remark that God’s love does not happen to be anything like humans’ love and subsequently God can still be loving although it does not appear that way to God’s creatures.  Talbott in fact makes only one brief mention of this objection and that is a short quote before the beginning of the first chapter by John Stuart Mill. It reads like this, “To say that God’s goodness may be different in kind from man’s goodness, what is it but saying, with a slight change of phraseology, that God may possibly not be good?” Readers should take this as Talbott’s rather abrupt dismissal of any who claim that perhaps God’s love is a different kind of love than any types of love here on earth between created beings.

So although Talbott does not offer his readers a developed account of non ultimate reality he does provide his readers with an account of how the Ultimate (God) should relate to and interact with the non ultimate (God’s physical creatures).  The answer for Talbott is essentially that non ultimate reality does not differ in kind, though perhaps degree, from ultimate reality.

John 7:53-8:11

Posted in Biblical Studies with tags on December 31, 2012 by taylorvincentroche

Part of a paper I wrote on John 7:53-8:11, one of the most disputed passages in the New Testament. This portion is from the part of the paper that deals with the authenticity of the passage.


For the purpose of examining the authenticity of John 7:53-8:11 an article written by Gary M. Burge titled “A Specific Problem In The New Testament Text And Canon: The Woman Caught In Adultery (John 7:53-8:11)” will be used to summarize the position of this paper.  First examined will be the  external evidence against the text. According to Burge, the chief problem with this passage from the Fourth Gospel is extremely weak attestation. Only one ancient manuscript contains John 7:53-8:11.

This is the Codex Brezae which is dated fifth or sixth century. Based on examination of the Greek texts Burge concludes that the story of the adulterous woman was introduced very late and was primarily known only in the west.

Considering the Church fathers, Origen in his commentary on John moves directly from 7:52 to 8:12. The earliest lectionaries, including the Constantinopolitan Lection have no mention of the passage. The earliest mention of the passage is by Euthymius Zigabenus in the twelfth century but even he considered the passage to be an insertion.

One more powerful piece of external evidence is that multiple Church fathers, including Tertullian, when discussing rules regarding adultery make no mention of this passage.

It would seem that this would not be the case if they considered it authentically John. Burge does point out however, that in the west there is more firm attestation. Those such as Jerome and Augustine both clearly have knowledge of the text. Also, Eusebius mentions a story that he claims was told to him by Papias, regarding an accused woman brought before Jesus. In the end Burge concludes that while the text is virtually absent in the Greek texts of the east, it seems that it was more known in the Latin west.

However, this does not mean the external evidence is inconclusive. The most important external witnesses remain completely silent on this passage.

In the book “The Five Gospels” the Jesus Seminar makes this passage as one that Jesus most assuredly does not represent the historical Jesus’ words.

Their reasons are as follows, Firstly because the this pericope is found in many different places throughout the four gospels, and seems to be a kind of “orphan” story. The Jesus Seminar scholars hold that while it is certainly not a part of the original Gospel of John, it is a notable tradition and they place it in a rather unique category that being the category of things “they wish Jesus had said and done.” Perhaps it is important to note that this is one of the very few places that the author of this paper actually agrees with anything the scholars of the Jesus Seminar say.

Now turning to examine internal evidence, the case for considering this passage inauthentic becomes much stronger. The language in these verses is simply not Johannine.

The syntax in John 7:53-8:11 is drastically different from the rest of John. Added to this is the very peculiar placement of such a passage. Not only does it fail to fit with the surrounding passages, it actually breaks up the flow of John. One need only read John 7 and 8 while excluding 7:53-8:11 to notice how much better the story of John reads without those twelve verses. The unique aspect to this piece of evidence is that the reader does not need to be a New Testament scholar to see its truth. Most decidedly because of the change in syntax, it seems very unlikely that this passage is even Johannine.

According to Bruce Metzger’s textual commentary on the New Testament “The evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming.”

In his reasoning for this he cites numerous manuscripts that did not contain this pericope, he also points out certain manuscripts in which the leaves containing these passages were missing. However close examination of these manuscripts reveals that there is simply not enough room for this pericope to be included.

Metzger’s conclusion is that these verses are clearly a piece of oral tradition which had wider acceptance and knowledge of in the Western part of the Church which was what eventually led to its inclusion into certain manuscripts in certain places.

Metzger does however acknowledge that the panel decided that this passage was most likely historical and as such printed it, but distinguished it by placing double brackets around John 7:53-8:11.

NOA’s Ark- Fine for Idealism, Part I

Posted in Philosophy with tags on December 12, 2012 by taylorvincentroche

Some of my thoughts on philosophy of science, this time regarding realism and antirealism. The two articles this essay responds to are Arthur Fine’s “The Natural Ontological Attitude”, and Alan Musgrave’s response to him “NOA’s Ark- Fine for Realism.” I do not claim to be an expert in philosophy of science, but the articles were quite interesting.


In the year 1984 Dr. Arthur Fine published an article that created a new position in the philosophical and scientific battle between realism and antirealism. His article is titled “The Natural Ontological Attitude”, a title the comes to represent what he understood as a kind of third option in this ongoing debate. In his article Fine directly attacks realism, but does not go so far as to defend antirealism. Rather he advocates what he calls NOA, or Natural Ontological Attitude. Five years later in 1989, Dr. Alan Musgrave published an article in critiquing Fine. Musgrave dismisses Fine’s criticism of realism and posits that Fine’s NOA is actually realism in disguise. This paper will specifically examine Fine’s essay while bearing in mind, and some times referring to, Musgrave’s claims. In addition to this, this essay will examine whether or not it is possible to be an idealist and accept what Fine refers to as the ‘more simple and homely sort of argument’ which begins to form the foundation of Fine’s NOA.

Arthur Fine spends the beginning of his essay examining arguments for realism. Following this he addresses the progress science seemingly makes and how this progress relates to realism. It is after all this that he turns his attention to “Nonrealism”.

Fine states that he believes the realist’s heart is not so different from his own heart. Namely that it is not the abstract philosophical arguments that convince him of realism but a more homely, simple argument that convinces him of realism. According to Fine this argument begins with the statement, “I certainly trust the evidence of my senses, on the whole, with regard to the existence and features of everyday objects.”

Fine believes the realist must have similar confidence in the method of scientific investigation and takes scientists’ claims largely in the same way that he takes the evidence of his senses in regard to everyday senses. Thus Fine concludes that, “it is possible to accept the evidence of one’s senses and to accept, in the same way, the confirmed results of science only for the realist,”.

If this is accurate than what does it mean to accept something as true? Particularly, how does one do this in the same way for both ordinary sense perception and scientific theories? Here Fine distinguishes between truths and truths. Although this may seem confusing, what Fine is really doing is distinguishing between truths central to a person’s life and less central to a person’s life. The centrality of any particular truth may vary on the nature of the person who holds that truth. At this point Fine makes a rather significant move and it is necessary to examine his own words,

Could Bohr, fighting for the sake of science (against Einstein’s realism) have felt compelled either to give up the results of science, or else to assign to its “truths” some category different from the truth’s of everyday life? It seems unlikely…We might well come to question whether there is any necessary connection moving us from accepting the results of science as true to being a realist…Then, it seems to me that both the realist and the antirealist must toe what I have called “the homely line.” That is, they must both accept the certified results of science as on par with more homely and familiarly supported claims.

The acceptance of this results in what Fine terms the ‘core position.’ By which he means accepting scientific results as on par with ordinary sense perception. Now if Fine is correct in this, and both the realist and antirealist can accept this statement, than what is the nature of the difference between the two according to Fine? Fine believes the difference lies in what each is willing to add onto this core position. The realist, in particular, adds on a resounding “Really!” By this Fine means that the realist will argue that scientific statements correspond to reality, that scientific claims speak of how the world really is. As has probably already been guessed, Fine’s proposed third option is the “core position.” For Fine, the core position is the acceptance of scientific theories in the same fashion as one accepts everyday truths. So what does it mean to be true? It means that a statement or theory is true if it the entities and objects referred to in the theory or statement actually refer to actual objects in reality. Thus these statements are true referentially.

He maintains that this position does not favor the realist or the antirealist but rather lies right in the middle, being something that each side can affirm. Fine does much in the way of describing and defending this position through the remainder of his essay. However it is necessary to put Fine on hold for a moment and acknowledge the critique of his theory through the work of Musgrave.

“Faith” In Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Part IV

Posted in Biblical Studies, Philosophy with tags , on December 9, 2012 by taylorvincentroche

Final section of my short series on Kierkegaard and his concept of faith. Feel free to comment, I’d always love to hear your thoughts.

As I mentioned at the very onset of my paper, despite the fact that Johannes does not desire to be a biblical exegete he is interpreting Scripture and if he does so in a faulty manner he will arrive at a faulty definition of faith. Perhaps his only mistake, which proves to be fatal, in his exegesis is that he seems to forget the greater context of the passage. This is also perhaps the strongest point in favor of my definition of faith. Consider the greater context, the story of Abraham and Isaac takes place in chapter 22 of Genesis. In chapter 12 of Genesis G-d makes a covenant with Abraham. For the next ten chapters G-d leads Abraham through foreign countries and remains faithful the promise he made to Abraham. We would do well to remember that these are not small trials that G-d protects Abraham through either. In the ten chapters G-d leads Abraham through Egypt and keeps his family safe from Pharaoh. G-d blesses the land in which Abraham entered after Lot chose what appeared to be the more fruitful land. G-d protects Abraham in his pursuit of his nephew and gives the king of Sodom into Abraham’s hand. G-d grants Abraham a son long after childbearing years for either he or his wife. G-d delivers Abraham again as he passes through foreign lands. Than, after all this G-d does the unthinkable and asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, his only son, the one through whom the promised nation was to come. Considered in this light, is Abraham’s obedience really unintelligible? Is not Abraham acting on what is an established trustworthy authority? Cease to examine the Abraham story and look instead at the broader context and Scripture and one will notice that all those who exercised faith were indeed acting on a trustworthy authority. One objection that has been raised to this statement is that Rahab did not have any past experiences with G-d and perhaps did not act on this definition of faith. But again, did not Rahab hear of the countless surprising victories racked up by the Israelites prior to their arrival outsider her city? Is it not likely that her faith was based on the witness of those bearing the stories of the Israelites victories? From their trusted witness she chose to place faith in the Israelites G-d who was clearly more powerful than the gods of her land? As earnest and honest as Johannes is, it seems that his definition of faith does not properly interpret what is actually going on in the Abraham story.

The main problem for Johannes’ definition is that it does not sufficiently emphasize that faith is based on, not identical to, trustworthy authority. His definition and account is compelling, but given his slight misinterpretation of the biblical text, his definition of faith lacks any basis in reason. My definition places a healthy emphasis on the reasonable basis for faith as well sufficiently explaining what occurs in the biblical text, particularly in light of its context. Johannes’ definition is useful but is a dangerous one to embrace, simply because it results in an irrational, unintelligible kind of faith. So in conclusion I submit my definition of faith is more sufficient because it is grounded in a certain amount of reasonability, that reasonability based in a witness or experience found to be a trustworthy authority.


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