Can the Analogia Entis Support Privation Theory? (by Lexi)

After failing all attempts to add my friend and peer at Canadian Mennonite University, Lexi, to the authorship of this blog, I’ve decided to simply post her thoughts as  a guest post. So there you go. Enjoy and engage.


Can the Analogia Entis Support Privation Theory?

Among the theological theories that most thinkers consider well-supported, timeless and theologically helpful are Aquinas’ analogia entis and Augustine’s understanding of evil as privation. The former refers to the notion that humanity and all else that we consider to “exist”, exists in a way that is analogical to God’s way of existing. God does not participate in the same category of being as we do. In the words of Simone Wiel “The God who is, does not exist.” This idea was put forward by Aquinas as a response to Duns Scotus, who suggested that everything that exists, including God, participates in being to a different degree – God to the highest degree, then the angels, then man, then animals etc. The problem with this however is that it sets up a prior category of ontology to which God is subject. Aquinas therefore suggested that rather than there being a univocity of being – a category in which all that is participates according to degrees, there is an analogy of being.

Augustine on the other hand, is interested in a somewhat different problem; the existence of evil. In contrast to his former Manichean beliefs, which suggested that God and evil are two opposing forces of ontological substance waging war against each other, Augustine came to understand evil as the absence of God and therefore not only an absence of good but also of being. Pure evil, therefore, has no ontological status and impure evil is simply the corruption of that which was good, pulling it towards non-being. In proposing this, Augustine was attempting to protect God’s omnipotence. Postulating the existence of an ontological evil that is more or less as powerful as God is a threat to that omnipotence. It also raises difficult questions regarding creation and the origin of this ontological evil. These are easily avoided if evil is not given ontological status.

The two theological theories do not have much in common, and are rarely presented in conversation with each other as they pertain to rather different areas of theology. Nevertheless, both share a concern for freeing God’s being from notions that reduce and confine his being to anthropomorphic conceptions. It therefore seems reasonable to me to consider these two theories together, especially since many theologians hold to both to be true. What strikes me, in putting these two theories alongside each other, is that the idea of evil as privation seems to adhere far more closely with Duns Scotus’ univocity of being than Aquinas’ analogia entis. The notion of privation attaches goodness to being, suggesting that as goodness decreases, so too does being. The less something participates in goodness, the less it participates in being as well. This is therefore a quantitative understanding not only of goodness but also of being. It thinks only in terms of more or less, not in terms of qualitative difference. Has it not therefore also again reduced God to prior categories of both being and goodness? Since God is the most good, he participates in being the most, with things which are less good moving progressively down the spectrum. This was precisely Duns Scotus’ suggestion.

This then raises the question as to whether it’s possible to conceive of privation theory according to analogia entis and this is the question that I’m submitting for thought. If we maintain Augustine’s implication that being and goodness are inseparable, then according to Aquinas, God’s goodness as well as being must be analogical to our own. However, if that’s the case, then the goodness and being in which evil does not participate is not God’s goodness and being, but is a created, analogical goodness and being. This leads us then to understand evil not as an absence of God (his being and goodness) but as an absence of some other being and goodness. Would it not then be possible for God’s being and goodness to still be present where there is evil, that is where the analogical goodness and being are absent? If being and goodness do not exist on a spectrum then can we really say that God and evil (his absence) are mutually exclusive?

At the moment then, it seems that both the attempt to rearrange our metaphysics according to privation theory and the attempt to insert privation theory into Aquinas’ metaphysics are problematic. The former succumbs to Duns Scotus’ problem of subjecting God to a prior category and the latter makes it possible for God to be strangely present where there is evil, thereby negating the importance of the notion of privation in the first place! So, I cannot see any way that the two can fit together. If this is indeed the case, then we will have to start asking ourselves which theory needs revising…



7 comments on “Can the Analogia Entis Support Privation Theory? (by Lexi)

  1. Tony Hunt says:

    Ooohh, very intriguing thoughts. I’m going to need to think about this for a while.

    p.s. – Kampen – At least on my WordPress page, if you go to the dashboard and scroll down, on the mid-bottom left should be a “Users” bar. If you click it, an avatar for you and Theophilus should appear. Right next to the icon “Users” should be an “Add New” button. You should be able to add Lexi there.

  2. Kampen says:

    I’ve tried that. But when I click “Add New” it just goes back to my main dashboard…

  3. Theophilus says:

    If God is “strangely present where there is evil”, might that be an instance of God’s omnipresence? I think if you forswear God’s presence where there is evil, you forswear God’s presence in this world. And if Jesus submitted to the cross, being subjected to much evil, then God’s capacity to be present in the face of evil is rather well established, at least in Christian thought.

    • Jon Coutts says:

      My first impression is that, yes, you’ve teased out something important here. My second impression is, along with Theophilus, the problem isn’t really a problem. I think it is precisely the point that evil destroys us, not God. God can be present in and around evil, without being its author or being complicit in it. Rather, God has condescended in Christ (ultimately) to take evil on Himself, and aside from that has condescended providentially to allow beings to continue to exist who have turned to privation rather than good. (But maybe I’m missing something here with my impressions.)

      My third impression, stemming from this, is that whereas I was beginning to wonder whether privation theory leads us to a doctrine of annihilation (rather than hell), the clarification you’ve made helps me to see where a doctrine of hell fits in with privation. The turn to evil only knows God’s wrath. That is the form of God’s presence and goodness that evil gets. And it does not get annihilation because evil can not even give it relief. I don’t like this at all, by the way, but it sure does help me bring some biblical texts and some privation theory together.

      Like I said: my impressions. A really thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

  4. Interesting thoughts, which will require some reflection. Though I would start by tweaking one of your sentences:

    “If we maintain Augustine’s implication that being and goodness are inseparable, then according to Aquinas, God’s goodness as well as being must be analogical to our own.”

    Aquinas is quite clear that the anological relationship between us and God only flows one way. We are analagous to God, God is not analagous to us. Thus God’s goodness and being are not analogous to our own, but our goodness and being are analagous to God’s.

  5. Lexi says:

    Hello everyone,
    Thank you for your helpful comments. I apologize for my lack of prompt reply. I can’t see what’s going on as easily unless Kampen gives me a nudge.

    So what I’m hearing (reading) is that perhaps attempting to understand privation according to the analogy of being is actually helpful for understanding how God can be present where there is evil, especially in Christ. Thank you also for pointing out that the analogy of being only flows in one direction. I think that’s helpful in explaining how it is that God can be present where there is privation without himself being pulled into it. If it is only we who are analagous to God, then God is not moved by any variations in our being. Evil can still be defined as an absence of God, even though the being of God himself is not subject to that spectrum of absence. Is that what you were getting at?

    Nevertheless, this causes me to wonder if privation is really necessary. Jon Coutts said “God can be present in and around evil, without being its author or being complicit in it.” Does this only work for privation? If it is only our being and goodness that is analagous to God, such that he is not threatened by our privation, could one not just as reasonably imagine an evil with ontological force that is not a threat to God’s omnipotence because it is within this analogical realm, while God is still a threat to it (in his wrath)? You talked about trying to bring privation theory together with some biblical texts, which for me raises the question of how we bring it together with the idea of the devil, for example in the temptation of Christ. Are we forced to read this as metaphorical or allegorical?

    I realize that this leads us to a different set of questions than the one that I started with, but I appreciate the help in trying to work through this idea of privation.

  6. […] by Kampen and Theophilus. The blog is teeming with great theological discussions about baptism, the analogia entis, and Mennonites (and John Howard Yoder!).  And, if one wants to evoke something of a short […]

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