Notes on Thomistic Concepts on the Structure of Reality

St. Thomas Aquinas from  by Carlo CrivelliThis is a summary of some key concepts for the understanding of the Thomistic theological constructs for the structure of reality and being.


In Aristotle, there are two senses of substance: the “first substance” is a whole, concrete entity – this horse, this man. The second sense, or “second substance” refers to quiddity – horse, man.

First substance refers to a being or an entity subsisting or existing in itself, not in another being like an accident. This is a metaphysical category; e.g., God, angels, human beings.—not physical, chemical substance. It is the basic ontological unit, a complete, individual whole, a determinate, particular subject of existing and acting, e.g., this tree, this human being, Tom, Mary, etc. It is the proper subject of existence, “that which exists [quod est],” not “that by which something exists [quo est]”

This is the first “category” of Aristotle’s ten categories or predicaments, the principal and primary sense of being. (See the list below)

Aquinas defines “person” as “individual substance of rational nature,” (cf. Boethius) and divine persons as “subsisting relations.”

Second substance refers to the essence/quiddity/nature (including both substantial form and prime matter) that defines the kind of being something is, “that by which” a thing remains the kind of being it is; it is universal, not particular like first substances, and is realized only in first substances. Iit is an internal principle of being (not a being), “that by which”; e.g., humanity, dogness, treeness, not a human being, a dog, a tree—entities are not all externally determined but have certain natures intrinsic to themselves that make them what they are and make them act as what they are; intrinsic or internal principle of being and acting.

Therefore it refers to a set of the defining potentialities proper to a specific kind of being to be actualized by accidents; it provides identity, continuity, and stability in the midst of “accidental changes,” coming to an end when “substantial change” occurs and the entity ceases to be what it is – for example when a body ceases to be human by dying and being decomposed in to chemical substances.


They refer to realities that cannot exist in themselves, like first substances, but only in something else that does exist in itself – like color, weight, action, passion, etc. Iit is that by which a being can change while remaining the specifically and individually same entity and provides the elements of change and difference; it is the principle of diversity within the unity of the first substance. Some accidents are called “proper” accidents because they are proper to the species as a whole (e.g., ability to speak, laugh)

There are, according to Aristotle and Aquinas, nine categories of accidents, or modes of being in which a first substance can exist

  1. Quality: good, bad, wise, white
  2. Quantity: two feet long
  3. Action: run, walk, etc.
  4. Passion: being burned, being cut
  5. Relation: double, half, greater than
  6. Place: in the classroom, in Claremont, etc.
  7. Time: yesterday, last year, etc.
  8. Posture: reclining at table, sitting down, etc.
  9. State: having shoes on, being in armor


Structure or Essence of Material Substances:

The essence of material substances is composed of substantial form and prime matter. Substantial form is the source of the specific identity or identity as a species, as a human being, as a dog, etc. Prime matter is pure potentiality to be specified, determined, activated by the form. It is the principle of individuation: it multiplies the form and accounts for diversity within the unity of the form or species by receiving and restricting the form to “this” material subject–the possibilities of the species are not exhausted by an individual. For example, “humanity”is  multiplied into “many human individuals” by matter.

Consequently, in human beings there is a composite of form and matter: hylomorphism. There is a unity and distinction of soul and body –  soul as form of the body (matter); the soul is the efficient, transcendent cause of the body through intellect and will


Ultimate Principles of Being: Essence and Existence

For any being, or substance there are two fundamental questions: what something is and whether it exists—essence and existence

As such, there is a distinction between ens (a being), esse (to be, act of being, act of existing, activity of existing, existence, as verbal noun), and essence– the act of existing diversified by a diversity of essences. For example, one can ask whether a unicorn actually exists.

There is real distinction between essence and act of existing in all finite beings – they may or may not exist – but only a rational distinction in God, since God’s essence does not possess existence, but rather, is identical with his existence.


Ontological primacy of esse, existence:

Thomism is a metaphysics of existence, not metaphysics of first substance–esse is not to be reduced to substance. It is an existentialist, not essentialist ontology. The general rule is that the actual determines the potential (e.g., accidents determine substance; form determines matter (specifying and actualizing).

The act of being cannot be determined by anything outside itself, i.e., by something not existing. It can only be determined internally from within – the finite act of being is not absolute, pure, unique esse but only an act of being of a certain limited kind.

This limitation can only come from essence, which as potency, potentiality of certain kind of being, receives, determines, specifies, and limits the act of being. Thus, the act of existing both actualizes the essence as something other than itself and is limited by essence.

This is different – even opposite than previous ideas found in Alfarabi, Avicenna, Algazali, which, in making a distinction between essence and existence, considered existence as added to essence, i.e., existence as accident, which is then an essentialist philosophy (not existentialist).

In contrast, for Aquinas, existence is not on same level as essence. Existence is not another accident, but the most intimate and most profound element in all things. Existence as accident cannot explain  the necessary existence or simplicity of existence in God. Esse and essence belong to two different orders altogether: esse transcends the whole plane of essence.

Essence is distinct from existence and essence does not contain existence but is also thoroughly actuated by existence. Existence is internal to essence in the sense that essence is truly essence only when actualized by existence, but essence is external to existence in the sense that existence is not inherent in essence; that is to say, a thing can be or not, exist or not; to be a particular kind of being is not necessarily to exist as that kind of being—existence is most internal to me yet external to my essence as this individual of a particular kind.

To create is precisely to produce the esse of things – it is to make things exist. The creator is most intimately present to things because he is present to their act of existing—more deeply than to their materiality or even their spirituality. God is more intimately present to me than I am to myself – as Augustine said, intimius intimo meo.

Existence is graced, intrinsic to me as most intimate to me yet not constitutive of me because I am not my own existence—my existence is always borrowed, gifted, given. Existence is not part of my essence. This distinction precludes pantheism, and yet it does involve a certain panentheism: all things are in God, in the sustaining power of God’s creative causality.

All things have meaning only in relation to existence; what is most perfect is the act of existing, related to all things as to their first act. Existence is the actuality of all things, including essence, form, matter, etc. It precedes all other perfections: the good, the beautiful, one, etc.; these latter are meaningful only insofar as they are or exist and therefore only as particular modes of being or existing. There is a primacy of existence in Aquinas vs. the primacy of the Good in Plato.


Cognitive primacy of existence:

Esse, existence, is the horizon of all cognition: all things are understood as existing or at least as capable of existing (the first principle) and we perceive all things under the horizon of being (sub ratione entis). The natural tendency of reason is to essentialize existence, turn it into a mode or kind of essence, especially material essence—to reify esse into a frozen essence, to reduce existence to an abstract concept.

We must distinguish between simple apprehension of essence or quiddity (first operation of the intellect, i.e., what is this? It is a horse, or a unicorn.) and the act of judgment which composes or combines or separates essence and existence (second operation of the intellect which regards the esse of things – the unicorn does not exist, the horse exists). Thus, there is a judgment of existence: “Socrates is”– a composition of substance Socrates and its existence in the unqualified or absolute sense.

It depends also on what the meaning of “is” is!

Judgment of existence in the qualified sense would be: “Socrates is a human being” – the role of the copula: essence of Socrates is to be a man, or white–existential value is not direct in the copula, but still there–actuality of the act of existing is the principal signification of “is,” but secondarily all actuality whatsoever including the actuality of a certain form (man, white).

The copula still designates composition of form and existence; the actuality of the form is consignified —“Socrates exists with such and such determinations” still specifies his particular mode of existing. The unity of subject and predicate is affirmed as existing in reality, outside the mind, irreducible to our own affirming subjectivity. Thus the modern turn to the subject has its limitations.

Every time we make such judgments – Socrates is … – we are already affirming existence, and act of existing as grasped in the act of judging contains a permanent reference to an infinitely rich reality of the pure act of existing–pursuing it all the way to the supreme existent, God. As concept, being is most universal and most abstract—richest in extension but poorest in comprehension. Reason dislikes the undefinable, which being is in its inexhaustible reality.


Real distinction between essence and existence in finite beings

Essence can be understood without knowledge of its existence. There is a radical contingency of all beings (they may or not come into existence, and they may nor not cease to exist) and there is the impossibility of there being more than one being in which essence and existence are identical (God).

Existence and essence are related as act and potency. There is no potency in God, who is pure actuality because his essence is identical with his existence.

God is not a genus, a quiddity. Finite existence is existence by participation; God exists by essence – ipsum esse subsistens, the very act of existing that subsists, the subsisting act of existing

Kant says that existence is a logical, not a real predicate, but this is not true; existence is neither merely logical nor merely one among other predicates, but the predicate that confers reality on all other predicates because existence makes all predicates real. The reality of predicates depends on existence.

Thus, Thomist theology is a theology of being (sapiential, contemplative), as opposed to contemporary theologies of life, existence, praxis, liberation, hope, etc. (prophetic, practical).

Kierkegaard speaks of forgetfulness of existence in the subjective sense, Heidegger of forgetfulness of being—Aquinas speaks of the forgetfulness of existence in the metaphysical sense—the sense of the suppression of contingency of existence, death, old age—our tendency to reduce reality to the sensible in their particularity—and ignore the act of existing as the most profound and intimate act of a being as a being (shich requires contemplative detachment from the lures and illusions of sensible things)

Because of the composition of act and potency, where every act is the actualization of an existing potentiality, the world is not a mere succession of purely contingent appearances or acts but an orderly succession of intelligible, stable events—there is no act which is just act without actualizing a potentiality, while potentiality, if it is real, is an already actualized potentiality.



Radical Orthodoxy – Conclusion (Part 6 of 6)


Erik Olin Wright

Erik Olin Wright, President of the
American Sociological Association

For Milbank, Christian theology/sociology has to provide a “counter-ontology” because, as required by the provision of a different ethics, it has to establish an ontology of participation united with an epistemology of analogy, both of which are necessary to provide depth to all reality.

Outside of such ontology of participation, all reality is flattened; all social, political and cultural aspects become reducible to the mere human and humanistic level, all ethics are reducible to preference and power games, all language reducible to mere signs, and all men reducible to chemical/biological machines.

Within an ontology of participation, there are no things, no ultimate substances, only shifting relations and generations in time which only exist in their constitution of ideal, logical patterns; knowledge is not a representation of things, but is a relation to events, and a action upon events, because truth, for Christianity, is not correspondence, but rather participation of the beautiful in the beauty of God.[1]

Secular reason is part of an antique-modern scheme, and this is counteracted by an ontology of difference where narrative and ontology reinforce each other, the transcendent God announcing himself in the narrative as the God Who Is.

In this ontology, “there can be no more ‘truth and falsity’ . . .  because no positive non-being is posited, as by Platonism, and not pure material potency, as in Aristotelianism, [and] nothing that is, can be in any sense wrong.”[2] The other important points Milbank makes concerning this ontological outlook have been already highlighted in the first section of this paper.

Counter-History of the Kingdom

Lastly, this Christian theology/sociology has to take up again the “counter-history,” but this time under the aspect of ecclesial critique. Milbank has no intention of adopting a naïve perspective in which Christian theology and Christian praxis have been perfect, mere victims of secularization and distortion coming from outside. Rather, the failures of Christian theology and practice themselves have given occasion to ontological and epistemological shifts that have eventually led down the path to secularization and nihilism.

The Church failed to bring about salvation, but instead ushered in the modern secular – at first liberal, and finally nihilistic – world. [3]

For Milbank, the invention of the secular began at least in the eleventh century.[4] The Church helped to unleash a naked violence and failed to displace politics; it engendered a newly rationalistic and formalized approach to law from the twelfth century onwards, even to the degree that theorists of papal absolutism pressed for a doctrine of unlimited absolutism, and the State assumed the form of a perverted Church, an anti-Church.

In the midst of history, the judgment of God has already happened. And either the Church enacts the vision of paradisaical community which this judgment opens out, or else it promotes a hellish society beyond any terrors known to antiquity: corruptio optimi pessima.

For the Christian, interruption of history decoded antique virtue, yet thereby helped to unleash first liberalism, then positivism and dialectics and finally nihilism. Insofar as the Church has failed – and has even become a hellish anti-Church – it has confined Christianity, like everything else, within the cycle of the ceaseless exhaustion and return of violence.[5]

Milbank’s contention then is that the Catholic vision of ontological peace now provides the only alternative to a nihilistic outlook; there can be again the emanation of harmonious difference, the exodus of new generations, the diagonal of ascent, and the path of peaceful flight.


John Milbank and the Radical Orthodoxy project have made important criticisms of postmodern philosophy, and it has great merit in trying to recover the classical Christian tradition in a way that not merely repeats it, but adapts it and applies it to contemporary issues and challenges. Modern and postmodern insights are not just discarded, but rather incorporated and reoriented when they are helpful.

Beginning with the Enlightenment, the idea that there can be a neutral ground of thought – whether in politics, hard sciences, sociology, philosophy, etc. – became generally accepted. The reaction against the influence and authority of the Church over all areas of human life led thinkers to remove its yoke and seek knowledge independently, for its own sake, and for the sake of human achievement and profit. The illusion created was that knowledge can be acquired without any theological and philosophical presuppositions.

Radical Orthodoxy successfully challenges this outlook.

There can be no knowledge without presuppositions (as postmodernism recognized) and there can be no presuppositions without a theological outlook grounding them. There can be no thought without theology, and it is a matter of which theology will inform one’s presuppositions. As theologians have been arguing for centuries now, secular reason has a religion of its own, with its own sacraments (e.g. empiricism), and its own canon law (e.g. closed natural systems).

Milbank’s arguments, however, at times seem to be inconsistent, both internally and with the Augustinian/Thomistic tradition he seeks to recover.

As discussed in the other articles of this series, Milbank presses his arguments too far when challenging the autonomy of reason. There is no purely autonomous reason indeed, but there are serious difficulties in arguing that revelation is “but a higher measure of illumination.”

In this area, Milbank should follow his own directive of appropriating what is useful in the modern/postmodern context; there is legitimacy to reason and knowledge that does not make reference to transcendentals – one can know things in this way, but ultimately, what needs to be shown is that there is no reason why one should be able to know anything in a universe not sustained by God’s Logos.

We can know the laws of physics, biology, mathematics, logic – but they are only borrowed capital from the God who sustains all things and gives order to all things. In a secular universe, there cannot be any order, and therefore there cannot be any law. Moreover, there can be no ethics that is not arbitrary; in a secular universe, all that can be known about ethics – and some things are rightly known – ultimately can be reducible to preferences and power games, if ethics does not participate in the being of God.

Another deficiency in Milbank’s arguments has to do with his vision of peace as the antidote to postmodernity’s will to power. As already shown, Milbank seems to correct this in his later work, but correlative to his views of the altera societas of pure peace and pacifism is the denial of the full legitimacy of the State/Church distinction.

Milbank’s arguments fail to account for the fact that the Church arguably will never engulf all societies before the eschaton. That means that the work of the theologian, as an expression of the work of the Church, is to recognize that God has granted legitimacy to certain aspects of culture – law, government, politics, and so on. Milbank argues that “tending gardens, building bridges, sowing crops, caring for children, cannot be seen as “ecclesial” activities, precisely because these activities are now enclosed within a sphere dubbed “political.”

But what is the alternative? A totalitarian Christian Church that engulfs governments, civilizations, cultures, denying their freedom to believe as they will, and the legitimacy of the value of life to those who are not Christians (or at least theists)?

This will not do.

Christian theology has to view the public square not only as something that is, but also as something that should be, and then address it, precisely because before the consummation of all things, the Kingdom of God advances by the presentation of Christ and him crucified – as Augustine, Aquinas, and many other Church fathers understood – within a context of loving persuasion, not domination. It is ironic that the very context of the early Church that Milbank seeks to recover was one that is the most similar to our contemporary context when it comes to the existence of the Church in a thoroughly pluralistic society.

Christianity did eventually became mixed with the State, but for three hundred years it flourished, even under persecution, in a context in which Christian thought and practice was only possible in a pluralistic context. And this flourishing was not by denying legitimacy to the pluralistic world.

This seems to be Radical Orthodoxy’s greatest weakness: it fails to recognize that we live in a pluralistic world in which globalization is here to stay.

Christian theology should not use this as an excuse to dissolve its message under a relativistic banner of radical correlationism, but neither should it spend its energies outlining a Christian world where there is “no secular.”

Christian theology has to confront nihilism with the core of its message; the center of Christianity is not participation and transcendence – although they are indispensable for it – but the Incarnate, dead, buried, resurrected, and ascended Christ who is the revelation of the Triune God from whom, through whom, and to whom are all things.

When that is obscured, one runs the risk of reifying transcendence and participation, which is precisely one of the main complaints Radical Orthodoxy has concerning postmodernity: reifying things apart from the One who gives them depth.

Therefore, it seems that Milbank’s concerns with relation to the nihilistic path Western civilization has taken are well grounded, and many of his criticisms and suggestions are needed, but there has to be a certain refining towards consistency in his work when it comes to our present global pluralistic context.

If Milbank rightly does not want the One to be swallowed by the many, neither should he allow the many to be swallowed up by the One.


See Also:

Radical Orthodoxy – A Theological Vision

Radical Orthodoxy – Altera Civitas

Radical Orthodoxy – Reason and Revelation

Radical Orthodoxy – Metanarrative Realism

Radical Orthodoxy – Counter Ethics

[1] Milbank, Theology & Social Theory, p. 434

[2] Ibid., p. 438

[3] Ibid., p. 383

[4] Ibid., p. 441

[5] Ibid., p. 442

Radical Orthodoxy – Counter Ethics

John Milbank

As discussed in the previous article, Milbank argues that, Christian theology and sociology has to provide, first, a “counter-history.” It has to deny that history is reducible to purely humanistic and pragmatic socio-political arrangements, and rather it has to argue that there is a transcendental dimension to history that grounds its ethics, as well as its political and social practices.

Second, Christian theology/sociology has to provide a “counter-ethics.” There has to be a different practice that emerges as Christian ethics differs from either pre-Christian or post-Christian ethics, because it is in fact the difference from all cultural systems, exposing the nihilism inherent in them.

For Milbank, while there is continuity between the “antique understanding of ethics” (e.g. Plato, Aristotle) and Christian ethics, the latter critiques it and modifies it to a significant degree.

The polis is the ultimate center of virtue and ethics, but the Christian polis is the community of the Church. Similarly, this distinction between the social polis and the Christian polis should not imply that Christian ethics retreated to mere personal ethics as in modern liberalism, because the early Church remained in the social context in which it was generated.

One of the central aspects in this continuity/discontinuity structure of early Christian ethics that was neither pure social ethics nor mere individual piety is the concept of the Christian household, which included women, children and slaves as well as adult free males. This “came to be regarded as the primary context for paideia, a ‘laboratory of the spirit,’ in a fashion virtually unknown to antiquity.”[1]

Another important element was the combination of submission to the civil authorities as a rule (in its perceived God-given role of coercion and discipline of sin and disorder), with the disobedience of civil authorities when they would require Christians to participate in imperial worship or other forms of explicit paganism. Later, there was a gradual shift in the practice of Christian ethics in relation to the State, in that the gradual conversion of Roman citizens and rulers was expected to have implications for the character of political governance – and this culminating with the ascension and conversion of the emperor Constantine.

Following Augustine, then, Milbank argues that “worldly justice and government as paideia are not thereby abandoned as desirable objectives. On the contrary … they are truly realized in the city of God: fully in heaven, but also partially here on earth.”[2] Partially, because as long as time persists, there will be some sin, and therefore a need for its regulation through worldly dominium and the worldly peace, which takes the form of a bare compromise between competing wills.

The power of the State is necessary – it ought to be incorporated as an expression of the Christian community, and yet it will still regulate power negotiated between fallen wills and purposes. The political, then, is necessarily imperfectly social, because it contains elements of compulsion and of mere compromise.

At the same time, Milbank argues that “all political theory, in the antique sense, is relocated by Christianity as thought about the Church,” and that for Augustine, there is “nothing recognizable as a theory of Church and State.”[3] Milbank sees Augustine’s idea of the city of man not as a legitimate State, but as a vestige of ancient Babylon, which uses finite goods for bad ends; the city of God, by contrast, uses finite goods for good ends, with a different faith, and different hope, and a different love.

The city of man is now, after the Fall, at the same time an illegitimate State and a necessary evil, so that coercive political rule curbs human sin – thus sin curbing sin. Milbank thinks Aquinas has moved somewhat from Augustine’s position, and, accordingly, he criticizes him for it:

By beginning to see the social, economic and administrative life as essentially natural, and part of a political sphere separate for the church, Aquinas opens the way to regarding the Church as an organization specializing in what goes on inside men’s souls; his affirmation, for example (possibly inconsistent with his own affirmation of the “consequences of charity”) that the new law of the Gospel adds no now “external precepts,” seems to tend dangerously in this direction.

Once the political is seen as a permanent natural sphere, pursuing positive finite ends, the, inevitably, firm lines of division arise between what is “secular’ and what is “spiritual.” Tending gardens, building bridges, sowing crops, caring for children, cannot be seen as “ecclesial” activities, precisely because these activities are now enclosed within a sphere dubbed “political.”[4]

Milbank proposes rather that it is better that the bounds between Church and State be extremely hazy, so that a social existence of complex powers may emerge and curb either a sovereign State or a statically hierarchical Church.[5] Ideally, then there should be a state of total peace, where even the ancient virtues are subsumed and fulfilled in charity alone, and thus society would anticipate heaven and act as if sin was not there.

In fact, Christianity is to deny the necessity of sovereign rule and absolute ownership, and instead to seek to recover “the concealed text of an original peaceful creation beneath the palimpsest of the negative distortion of dominium, through the superimposition of an third redemptive template, which corrects these distortions by means of forgiveness and atonement.”[6]

Milbank goes as far as to argue that Augustine’s concession to punishment as inevitable in the fallen realm was inconsistent, even a mistake. For Milbank, non-sinful “pedagogic” coercion partially violates Augustine’s ontology because it makes some punishment positive. Since punishment must inflict some harm, however temporary, it has an inherently negative relationship to Being.

Milbank seems to have moved somewhat from this position in one of his later works: he writes in Being Reconciled (2003) that violence is violence “only when it is also evil,” i.e., there is violence that is evil, but it is also evil not to fight “evil violence” with proper violence.

To become a mere spectator of violence, and not oppose it, even with violence, is an evil act in and of itself. In this way, “evil and violence are convertible but not identical,” and “looking at violence is actually more violent than participating in violence . . . pacifism, as looking at violence, is at least as violent, and probably more absolutely violent, than actual physically violent interventions . . .  gazing at violence is the greatest violence.”[7]

This later shift apparently seeks to correct some of the inherent tensions in Milbank’s arguments concerning violence and pacifism.

See Also:

Radical Orthodoxy – A Theological Vision

Radical Orthodoxy – Altera Civitas

Radical Orthodoxy – Reason and Revelation

Radical Orthodoxy – Metanarrative Realism

Radical Orthodoxy – Conclusion

[1] John Milbank, Theology & Social Theory:  Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford:  Blackwell, 1990) p. 403

[2] Ibid., p. 404

[3] Ibid., p. 410

[4] Ibid., p. 412

[5] Ibid., p. 413

[6] Ibid., p. 423

[7] John Milbank, Being Reconciled:  Ontology and Pardon (New York:  Routledge, 2003) p. 28-30.

Radical Orthodoxy – Metanarrative Realism

John Milbank

First, Christian theology and sociology has to provide a “counter-history.” It has to deny that history is reducible to purely humanistic and pragmatic socio-political arrangements, and rather it has to argue that there is a transcendental dimension to history that grounds its ethics, as well as its political and social practices (since theological and metaphysical assumptions have guided societies’ praxis, and such assumptions are not reducible to mere preference or collective fantasies).

In order to fulfill this task, Christian theology has to provide a “metanarrative realism.” The objects of Christian faith and the modes of Christian experience are derived from a particular cultural practice which organizes subjects and objects, signs, images and actions, not just a set of propositions. The Christian metanarrative is performative, and the performance of its praxis takes place in the stage of a historical and mythical scene.[1]

Here again Milbank wants to use Hegelian principles in that the Incarnation brings together theoria and praxis, idea and history, doctrine and narrative. The incarnation “demands a return to the concrete, narrative level: if Jesus really is the Word of God, then it is not the mere extrinsic knowledge of this which will save us, but rather a precise attention to his many words and deeds and all their historical results.”[2]

This metanarrative is not be turned into a mere paradigm, isolated from its historical genesis, but there has to be a dialectic relationship between the “paradigmatic” and the “syntagmatic.” In other words, there is an organic relationship between the paradigms of the narrative that in a sense “stay in place” and the breaking out of this frame of reference into the temporal course of events – and that, of course, is performed by the Church in history.

In this way, the metanarrative is the story of Jesus and the story of the Church. No historical story is ever “over and done with,” and the Church’s history is the unfolding of both the history and story of Christ, so that there is no “disappearance of our own personalities into the monistic truth of Christ.”[3]

Rather, Jesus’ mission was the preaching of the Kingdom, and thus the inauguration of a new community, the Church. There is a displacement of time and chronological sequence in that the continuing story of the Church has already been finalized in an exemplary way in Jesus, and yet it is still to be realized universally by all generation of Christians – not in a mere repetition, but in a different reenactment of the metanarrative until its eschatological conclusion.

The metanarrative, then, is “the genesis of the [historical] Church” outside of which Christianity becomes a set of ahistorical propositions about Christ – indeed a sort of Gnosticism. For Milbank, however, this metanarrative of the Christ/Church has an interpretative, regular function with respect to all other history – it becomes a somewhat Hegelian “philosophy of history,” although based on faith, and not on reason. That is to say, the exclusivistic and universalistic claims of Christianity concerning ultimate truth and salvation are an intrinsic part of its faith, theology and history.

As Milbank puts it, “the logic of Christianity involves the claim that the interruption of history by Christ and his bride, the Church, is the most fundamental of events, interpreting all other events.”[4]

Not only Christianity makes its claims in its paradigmatic aspect, but it also continues the narrative syntagmatically, becoming the whole story of human history which is still being enacted – and that means that Christianity will have a fully social and political dimension, which nonetheless will give priority to the normative narrative – the way things ought to be will constantly be the goal of the way things are.

This normative aspect, for Milbank, is the possibility of critique of the Western tradition, and he argues that Augustine’s model in the City of God succeeds where Hegel and Marx fail – the latter being “gnostic’” versions of the former. Surprisingly, Milbank’s criticism of Hegel and Marx at this point is not that their models seem to be too idealistic, based on “reason,” but rather that their dialectics necessarily incorporate antagonism and violence.

Augustine’s model of the altera civitas, on the other hand, has “no logical or causal connection with the city of violence.” It is at this point that Milbank’s arguments for a counter history may run the risk of becoming ironically impractical and ahistorical – and, accordingly, he did in later works refine some of his views on violence and pacifism. I will expand this discussion in the conclusion.

Milbank argues that Augustine’s model in his Civitas Dei presents a non-antagonistic, peaceful mode of life grounded in historical and mythical narrative, as well as in a Christian ontology that gives priority of peace over conflict (which, for Milbank, is arguably the key theme of Augustine’s entire thought).[5] The city of man is marked by sin, the denial of god, self-assertion and self-love – a kingdom of power over others, the libido dominandi – power is pursued as an end in and of itself.

By contrast, the city of God is marked by real peace, worked out in a state of harmonious agreement, based upon a common love, and the realization of justice for all. The city of God has not been founded, as Rome, by the exertion of violent power, but by peaceful donation, in fellowship, in self-forgetting conviviality, illumined by an overarching vision of peace:

Whereas the civitas terrena inherits its power from the conqueror of a fraternal rival, the “city of God on pilgrimage through this world” founds itself not in a succession of power, but upon the memory of the murdered brother, Abel slain by Cain. The city of God is in fact a paradox, a “nomad city” (one might say) for it does not have a site, or walls or gates. It is not, like Rome, an asylum constituted by the “protection” offered by a dominating class to the dominated, in the face of an external enemy. This form of refuge is, in fact, but a dim archetype of the real refuge provided by the Church, which is the forgiveness of sins.[6]

Accordingly, mutual forgiveness and bearing on each other’s burdens becomes the modus vivendi of the Church, an atoning way of life. The Church itself is a continuing atonement to God, following Milbank’s metanarrative that starts with the life and work of Christ and continues in the life and work of the Church. Atonement, forgiveness, harmony, and ultimately peace, are the foundations of the city of God, whereas in the city of man, where there are no objective standards of truth and goodness, every act of persuasion is a violent act.

[1] John Milbank, Theology & Social Theory:  Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford:  Blackwell, 1990) p. 385

[2] Ibid., p. 387

[3] Ibid., p. 389

[4] Ibid., p. 390

[5] Ibid., p. 392

[6] Ibid., p. 394

Radical Orthodoxy – A Theological Vision

John Milbank

“Once, there was no ‘secular.’”[1] The first line of Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory is not only witty – it profoundly expresses, in condensed form, the major presupposition of Radical Orthodoxy, i.e., that ontology, epistemology, metaphysics, social theory and practice, and indeed all realms of human culture and knowledge, were, during the first millennia of Christianity, both grounded in as well as suspended by a vision of a cosmos in which the Trinity created and sustained the heavens and the earth, and gave it meaning and purpose. Once there was no secular, but instead there was a single community of Christendom, living in the space between the fall and the eschaton, where coercive justice, private property and impaired natural reason made shift to cope with the unredeemed effects of sinful humanity – and yet as explicitly participating in God by virtue of being a nature guided by grace to glory.

Around the 14th century, however, key aspects of this holistic Christian vision began to erode, and a supposedly neutral space of reason and metaphysics gradually began to open up under the foundations of Christendom. Radical Orthodox theologians generally credit John Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308) as the first major figure to successfully influence medieval thought towards univocity of being, and away from Thomas Aquinas’ analogy of being – shift which paved the way for secularizing tendencies that took place in the high and late Middle Ages. Milbank states:

Now this [late medieval nominalist] philosophy was itself the legatee of the greatest of all disruptions carried out in the history of European thought, namely that of Duns Scotus who for the first time established a radical separation of philosophy from theology by declaring that it was possible to consider being in abstraction from the question of whether one is considering created or creating being. Eventually this generated the notion of ontology and an epistemology unconstrained by, and transcendentally prior to, theology itself.[2]

Aquinas, taking his place in the long Augustinian tradition of that made critical use of the Platonic tradition, had argued that God is infinite, and therefore we as finite creatures cannot adequately comprehend him and talk about him using straightforward or univocal language. On the other hand, names are not applied to God and creatures in a purely equivocal sense either; rather, we know according to the proper mode of knowing creatures possess, namely, we know analogically, i.e., according to proportion. God is wise in a relatively similar sense that we are wise, but he is also not only wiser (quantitatively) but also wise in a qualitatively different sense that we may be wise. We are not in the same scale of being as God, and therefore he is not just an amplified version of human virtues. Rather, those concepts and virtues point to God in a way that he exceeds both in quantity and in quality what we can say of human beings.

According to Milbank, there was a generally agreed upon outlook in which human beings and the created order participated in the divine life, but this participatory ontology became problematic with Scotus’ univocity of being. If it is true that we can apply the term “being” to God and to his creatures in the same way – which is what univocity means – then “being” becomes an overarching category in which God and creatures both share, and this will have profound implications for epistemology and ontology. If being is a genus under which both God and creatures are species, then God and creatures are different poles in the ontological scale, wide apart as they may be; and epistemologically, it follows that, rational creatures can know things in the same way God does (even if not as much as he does).

Two other significant influences in the shift toward naturalism are the (later) Ockhamist nominalist epistemology and voluntarist ethics. A proper assessment of Scotus’ views on univocity of being, as well as the following nominalism (and the connection between the two) is beyond the scope and interest of this paper. While inescapably making reference to these concepts and developments, I will concentrate on Milbank’s arguments towards a restoration and appropriation of Augustinian/Thomist thought for postmodern society

Milbank argues that for centuries now secularism has been defining and constructing the world – a world in which the theological is either discredited or relegated to the private individual. The logic of secularism, however, cannot be divorced from a lack of values and a lack of meaning. Thus, secularism has naturally ushered nihilism in all its many manifestations, and Radical Orthodoxy’s project is to “reclaim the world by situating its concern and activities within a theological framework.”[3] For the proponents of Radical Orthodoxy, there is no neutral realm of ontology, epistemology, metaphysics, or any other realm of human knowledge and activity. Every realm includes presuppositions, and there is no escape from the fact that one’s presuppositions lead either to a transcendental, participatory philosophy or theology, or else a nihilistic philosophy that creates its own counterfeit theology. Radical Orthodoxy’s project is to critique modernism and postmodernism’s assumptions (while retaining and incorporating their helpful insights) in a way that is both radical and orthodox.

According to Milbank, Radical Orthodoxy is radical in four main ways:[4] first, it is radical because it seeks to recapture Christian theology from its roots, i.e., patristic and early medieval. Second, it seeks to criticize modern society, culture, politics, art, science and philosophy with “unprecedented boldness.” Third, it is radical in that it seeks to rethink the tradition when that is necessary for meaningful engagement with postmodernity – as well as in assessing the problems in the tradition that eventually led to the secularization of Western culture. Fourth, it is radical in the sense that it argues that only transcendence suspends embodied life, self-expression, sexuality, aesthetic experience, human political community, and everything else the Enlightenment was seeking to save and ended up ruining.

Thus, Radical Orthodoxy, according to Milbank, is more mediating than Barthianism, and less accommodating than liberal theology. For Milbank, both Barth and liberal theology accepted Kant’s distinction between the noumena and the phenomena – Barth concentrating on the immediate revelation of the noumena, since the phenomena could yield no knowledge of God, and liberalism concentrating on the phenomena as a way to accommodate Christian theology to secular thought.

Radical Orthodoxy, in contrast, mingles exegesis, cultural reflection, and philosophy in a complex but coherently executed collage. For Milbank, there is an inevitable choice between an ontology of participation, where every aspect of life, and every discipline must be framed by a theological perspective, or else an ontology and epistemology of univocal being and autonomous reason, which dreams of territories independent of God and end up ushering nihilism, because these territories are not grounded in anything. Radical Orthodoxy chooses the former, challenges the culture in that it has chosen the latter, and proposes an alternative. Undergirding the politics of modernity (i.e., liberal and secular) there is an epistemology of autonomous reason which is in turn undergirded by an ontology of univocity and the denial of participation; Radical Orthodoxy proposes an alternative in which behind politics there lies an epistemology (illumination) which is in turn undergirded by an ontology (participation).

[1] John Milbank, Theology & Social Theory:  Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford:  Blackwell, 1990), p. 9.

[2] John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward (eds.), Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (London:  Routledge, 1999) p. 23.

[3] Ibid., p. 1

[4] Ibid., p. 2-3