Duns Scotus, Classical Theist: A Vindication

Note: This is the online version of an essay from the Hanover Review 3.1 on the Reformation as Renewal Symposium. Print copies are available here and full digital copies of the issue are available here. Full details about the symposium can be found here. More information about the Hanover Review is found here.

1.  Introduction: Thinking and Praying with Duns Scotus

This essay examines several claims Matthew Barrett makes about John Duns Scotus in his book, The Reformation as Renewal. It makes an overall case that Barrett gets Scotus badly wrong and concludes with some methodological reflections inspired by Barrett’s errors. But first let me begin with a word of prayer.

Lord our God […] you are the ultimate end; you are supreme in perfection; you transcend everything else. You are altogether uncaused and so cannot come into existence or pass out of existence; indeed it is altogether impossible for you not to exist, because you exist necessarily, from yourself. So also you are eternal, possessing unending and simultaneous duration without the potential to exist successively; for there can be no succession where there is not something continuously caused, or at least dependent on another for being—a dependence alien to something existing necessarily from itself.

You live a most noble life, because you understand and you love. You are blessed, indeed you are in your essence blessedness itself, because you are the comprehension of yourself. You are a bright vision of yourself, and a love surpassingly delightful. And although you are blessed in yourself and fully suffice for yourself, yet you actually understand, all at once, everything that can be understood.

Everything that can be caused to exist, you can, all at once, will it contingently and freely, and by willing it cause it to exist. Therefore you are, most truly, infinite power. You are incomprehensible, infinite; for nothing omniscient is finite, no infinite power is finite, neither the most Supreme Nature nor the ultimate end is finite, nor is the altogether simple, essentially existing nature.

You are simplicity in the extreme, having no really distinct parts, having no realities in your essence that are not really the same. In you there is no quantity; no accident can reach you; thus you cannot suffer accidental change; you are in fact immutable […].

You alone are unqualifiedly perfect: not a perfect angel, or a perfect body, but perfect being; of the being possible for anything whatsoever to have, you lack nothing. It is not possible to have formally all the being possible for anything whatsoever to have; but it can be had formally or eminently, in just the way you have it, God, who are the highest of beings—indeed, among beings, the only infinite.

You are good without limit, communicating the rays of your goodness most liberally; to you, the most lovable, each individual thing in its own way returns, as to its final end.

You only are the first truth […]. Nothing besides yourself is a cause or explanation of how things appear to you, since your own essence is originally apparent to yourself, and for this reason, nothing posterior to your essence causes or explains how things appear to you.

In that essence, I say, every intelligible thing is present to your intellect in the most intelligible way possible. You are therefore the brightest intelligible truth, and infallible truth, and the one who comprehends with certitude every truth that can be understood. […] Everything appearing in your essence, shining out from it with most perfect clarity, appears to you according to its proper nature […]. There is no need to write at greater length about your truth and your ideas. Many things may be said about the ideas, but if nothing at all were said, and the ideas not even named, no less of your perfection will be known. This remains, that your essence is the perfect object for knowing everything that can be known, in every way it can be known. Let whoever wants to do so call this “an idea,” but here I do not intend to fixate on that Greek and Platonic word. [Amen.]1Scotus, Treatise on the First Principle 91–92, translated with commentary by Thomas M. Ward (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, forthcoming).

I am grateful to Blessed John Duns Scotus for penning this prayer. It is one of the most beautiful, pithy, and philosophically precise statements ever written of the core doctrines of classical theism and the participation of creatures in God. It’s also a summary of what Scotus takes himself to have demonstrated in his little book Treatise on the First Principle. This treatise itself is a sort of carefully edited digest of Scotus’s whole program of natural theology as set forth in Book I of his three commentaries (i.e., Lectura, Ordinatio, and Reportatio) on Peter Lombard’s Sentences. If you want to know how Scotus thinks about God and the relation of creatures to God, read the Treatise. It is very difficult but highly rewarding.

As someone who began to study Duns Scotus in complete ignorance of the bad reputation he had contracted in the twentieth century, a prayer like this put him emphatically on my mental “good guy” list. And there he has remained ever since, even as I find myself frequently disagreeing with or exasperated by him. So, while I myself make no claim to be a Scotist, or even to think Scotus was the smartest or holiest or most prophetic, or anything like that—indeed, despite the fact that there is at least one part St. Thomas to every one part Scotus in the theological cocktail of my mind—I feel defensive on his behalf.

2.  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Assessing Barrett’s Historical and Theological Claims

Scotus lived from 1265–1308 and was a Franciscan friar, as Barrett correctly notes. The Franciscans were followers of St. Francis of Assisi, who lived from 1181–1228. Francis wrote his first rule of life for his followers in 1209, and Pope Innocent III gave his blessing to the new Order of Friars Minor in 1210. Prior to Duns Scotus, the most famous and influential Franciscan thinker was St. Bonaventure, who lived 1221–1274, almost exactly contemporaneous with St. Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274). Barrett observes that Scotus sometimes disagreed with Bonaventure (though rather over-emphasizes this disagreement—Scotus came nowhere near a “constant critique” of Bonaventure).2Matthew Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2023), 228. But Barrett also commits the sort of basic chronological error that should cause readers to be on their guards:

Duns Scotus was a committed Franciscan, though he made no secret about his disagreement with past Franciscans on points of doctrine. His transparency created some difficulty as the Franciscans at the end of the twelfth century and the first half of the thirteenth century were influenced by Bonaventure only now to be swayed by Scotus during the second half of the thirteenth century.3Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 228

Bonaventure could not have been influencing Franciscans in the twelfth century, both because there weren’t any Franciscans in the twelfth century and because there wasn’t any Bonaventure in that century. Even on the hypothesis that the author has committed the common mistake of thinking that “twelfth century” means “1200s” and “thirteenth century” means “1300s” the chronology is not much better, since whatever force Scotus exerted against the influence of Bonaventure (for example about the Immaculate Conception) would have started in Scotus’s own lifetime, not delayed until the 1350s (middle of the 1300s, or fourteenth century).

Barrett is quite right that Bishop Tempier’s condemnations of 1277 were influential on Scotus (and Parisian theology as a whole). But Barrett is wrong when he says “evidence does not demonstrate Tempier’s direct influence on Scotus.”4Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 230. It does.5Scotus, Questions on the Metaphysics of Aristotle 2–3.220, trans. Girard J. Etzkorn and Allan B. Wolter, vol. 2 (St. Bonaventure, NY: The Franciscan Institute, 1998), 424. But it would be hard to learn this fact on purpose. One would have to read all of Scotus to know how many instances of direct influence there are. The one instance I have found, I found on accident, reading Scotus firsthand for some other purpose, long ago.

On the relationship between theology and metaphysics, Barrett claims that for Aquinas, theology and metaphysics are married, but for Scotus, these two “should be kept separate from one another.”6Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 231 These metaphors are vague. Aquinas argues clearly for the distinction of sciences, from which it follows that he thinks theology should be kept separate from other sciences such as metaphysics. Again, Scotus recognizes the distinction between theology and metaphysics as well, as Aquinas does, but he thinks they’re both knowledge-producing sciences that don’t yield contradictory propositions—a view that makes the marriage metaphor fitting. The metaphor is no less fitting when we note that for Scotus, unlike Aquinas, theology is a practical science—that is, in this case, a science all of whose claims are ordered ultimately toward practical knowledge of how to love God more, rather than merely theoretical knowledge about God.

Writing about Scotus on God’s power, Barrett seems to be of two minds. On the one hand, he characterizes it as limited only by the law of noncontradiction. But one paragraph above, he says something radically different: “God cannot contradict himself or his own holy character.”7Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 232. So which sort of power is Scotus supposed to have, on Barrett’s view? I think Barrett ultimately settles on the former, but Scotus’s own view is definitely the latter. Scotus thinks that God cannot fail to love himself.8Scotus, Ordinatio 46.1.14&43 (Vatican edition, 14, 201 & 208). But failing to love God is logically possible, as we know too well from our own experience of failing to love God. Therefore, Scotus thinks that God’s power does not extend to the full range of the logically possible. Rather, God’s power is to be understood as God’s ability to do everything that is consistent with his own nature, “his own holy character,” as Barrett puts it. In discussion of medieval voluntarism, not just in Barrett but in general, the old distinction between potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata is overblown. Here is all Scotus thinks it means: ordained power is the power to act within a system of laws. Absolute power is the power to act beyond that system. God as well as humans (and probably angels) have both absolute and ordained power.9Scotus, Ordinatio 44.un.3 (Vatican edition 6, 364). So a magistrate exercises ordained power when he follows traffic code and ensures only code-breakers are fined; the magistrate uses absolute power when he revises traffic code (say, by raising the speed limit to 40 where it had been 35). God has set up, by his good decree, lots of law-like policies about how human sinners are to be saved—e.g., those who are to be glorified must first receive grace.10Scotus, Ordinatio 1.44.un.6 (Vatican edition 6, 365). God acts by ordained power by gracing those he means to glorify. But, of course, he need not have established this rule at all: he might have chosen not to save anyone, or not to create anything, or to prevent everyone from sinning, or to save them in some other way than by infusing grace into their souls. We can see that God’s absolute power stretches beyond the rule that those are graced who are glorified by reflecting counterfactually that while God’s actual economy is fitting, given God’s generous nature and our human nature, there are likely other economies at least equally fitting, and God was just as able to establish these as the actual one.

Barrett’s reading of Scotus as a radical voluntarist follows in some places the respectable work of Thomas Williams. However, as Barrett notes, not everyone agrees with Williams’s reading. He specifically cites Allan Wolter as a representative of the opposition. Now, because Barrett himself is not working closely with Scotus’s own texts (as is clear from his footnotes, at least), he is not in a position to arbitrate between these competing interpretations. Why, then, is Williams or a Williamsian reading always to be preferred to Wolter (or Ingham, or Bychkov, or Borland and Hillman)? It is hard not to fear that it is because Williams’s fits the pre-determined narrative.

3.  Does Scotus’s Univocity Collapse the Creator-Creature Distinction?

Another predetermined narrative is that Scotus’s doctrine of univocity is horrible for theology and everything else. In echoing a case made by others, Barrett introduces what is (in my experience) a dialectical novelty: for the definition of univocity, he cites not Scotus’s own (easily available in an affordable reader published by Hackett) but the one that appears in Wuellner’s Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy. If we attend to Scotus’s own writings, however, we find that Scotus’s definition of univocity focuses on validity-preservation. Here’s what he has to say:

I say that God is conceived not only in a concept analogous to the concept of a creature, that is, one which is wholly other than that which is predicated of creatures, but even in some concept univocal to Himself and to a creature.

And lest there be a dispute about the name “univocation,” I designate that concept univocal which possesses sufficient unity in itself, so that to affirm and deny it of one and the same thing would be a contradiction. It also has sufficient unity to serve as the middle term of a syllogism, so that wherever two extremes are united by a middle term that is one in this way, we may conclude to the union of the two extremes among themselves.11Scotus, Ordinatio 3.1.1-2.26, translated by Allan B. Wolter in Duns Scotus, Philosophical Writings (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 19–20.

Scotus would be happy to say that any theory of the meaning of terms used in theological discourse that allows those terms to appear in valid syllogisms counts as a theory of univocity.

The controversy about Scotus on univocity arises from reading Scotus through a Thomist lens instead of on his own terms. What Scotus calls univocity is not what Aquinas calls univocity. In fact, it is clear that if by “univocity” Scotus meant what Aquinas meant, Scotus would reject univocity. This is because Aquinas thinks that those things are spoken of univocally that are related to one another univocally—and to be related to something univocally is to share its nature. God and creatures don’t share natures. They’re not related to each other univocally, so they’re not spoken of univocally.12Aquinas, Summa theologiae 13.5.corp.: “It is impossible that anything be predicated of God and creatures univocally. For every effect that does not match the power of the agent cause receives from the agent a likeness that is not of the same nature (ratio); rather, it receives it in a lesser way, with the result that what exists in the cause simply ad in the same way exists in the effects in a divided and multiplied way.” Translated by Brian J. Shanley in Aquinas, Basic Works, edited by Jeffrey Hause and Robert Pasnau (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2014), 145. A predicate like “wise” picks out a discrete perfection in a creature, but in God it picks out the whole divine essence (which includes wisdom and all the other attributes). Thus, “wise” as said of God “exceeds the signification” of “wise” as said of a creature and so the meaning of the latter “wise” is not exactly the same as the meaning of the former “wise.”

Here’s what Scotus would make of this: he agrees (obviously) that God and creatures are of different natures and so are not related to one another univocally. He agrees that God is the same as his attributes, including his wisdom, and that his wisdom is the same as his other attributes. But Scotus wouldn’t go on to infer anything about the meanings of words based on these facts.

It is a well-known feature of Aquinas’s “analogical” view that it is meant to preserve validity.13Aquinas, Summa theologiae 13.5.corp.: “But neither is all predication purely equivocal […] since this would entail that nothing can be known or demonstrated about God, but rather would always be subject to the fallacy of equivocation.” Translated by Brian J. Shanley in Aquinas, Basic Works, edited by Jeffrey Hause and Robert Pasnau (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2014), 145. Since Scotus’s theory of univocity is also meant to preserve validity, we might wonder whether they amount to the same thing in substance—a mere verbal disagreement. I think they might. But I don’t want to defend that hunch here.

Instead, I’ll briefly lay out one of the ways Scotus arrives at his view of univocity—the way I personally find most compelling.14Scotus, Ordinatio 3.1.1–2.27-34, translated by Allan B. Wolter in Duns Scotus, Philosophical Writings (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 20–22. The concept of being, or ens, functions in our psychology as a totally simple subject of reference. It’s the concept (and “being” is the word) by which we can “pick out” something to think or speak about, which then enables us to think or say something about it. Words like “it,” “that,” “this,” and “thing” often, though not always, play the same role. There is hardly anything intelligible that the concept of “being” and related words signify. But it is also a simple concept that is part of all our complex concepts of things that we affirm as existent. The concept of a creature, according to Scotus, in its most general sense, just is the concept of finite being. The concept of God, according to Scotus, in its most general sense (at least in the context of metaphysical investigation as opposed to revealed theology) is the concept of infinite being. Obviously, these are two different concepts: infinite being and finite being. No two concepts of beings can be more different than these. And yet, even these share something: that utterly simple conceptual component, being. You might say that that common conceptual component of being keeps finite being analogically related to infinite being, while that common conceptual component keeps bare being as applied to a creature univocally related to being as applied to God.

Now, suppose you accept this basic account of complex concepts built up out of simpler concepts, ultimately resolvable to the ultimately simple (Scotus calls them “simply simple”) concepts, such as being. Still, you might think that even here, at the level of bare being, there is room for an analogical theory rather than a univocal theory. Imagine resolving concepts down to simple components just as Scotus did, but then asserting that the simply simple concept of being in finite being is a different concept from the simply simple concept of being in infinite being. Each is simply simple, but they’re not the same. Then we’d have to say that being applied to God is different from being applied to a creature.

The problem, says Scotus, is that these concepts of being would have to be completely different and so equivocal. Since each is simply simple, they cannot share anything in common. There is no respect in which one can be similar to but different from the other. They are in fact totally diverse. So, the word “being” used of one means something completely different from the word “being” used of the other. We might as well be saying “left” as in a direction and “left” as in a past tense verb.

Scotus accepts univocity, then, for at least two reasons. First, he thinks conceptual equivocity destroys theology. If human discourse about God is not validity-preserving, then it is an exercise in futility. Second, it is more elegant to postulate that we possess just one simply simple concept of being. Now, what is theologically objectionable about this? Scotus’s univocity is just about how concepts are built up out of simple concepts and how the simply simple concepts work when we think and talk about God.

Does it “rupture the participation” of creatures in God?15Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 243 Not at all, as Scotus’s opening prayer makes clear. God is true existence, God is total existence (“Tu es verum esse, tu es totum esse”). To be a creature is, first, to have a nature that is incomplete or not fully determinate with respect to actual existence, such that it cannot exist unless God brings it into and sustains it in existence; and, second, to have been brought into being and to be sustained in being by God. Moreover, whatever is positively intelligible about a creaturely nature is some character or feature that exists originally in God as its exemplar, either eminently or formally. That all creaturely reality is like God as image to exemplar, includes dependence on God in its very nature, and is sustained by God at every moment of its existence, seems like a pretty robust doctrine of participation.

So maybe univocity isn’t so bad. But does Scotus ruin it all by going mushy on simplicity? Only if Aquinas does. Aquinas confronts the mystery of the diversity of attributes in the simplicity of the divine essence and posits a type of distinction that is so to speak tighter than a real distinction, but more real than a mere mental distinction. He calls it a distinction of reason ex proprietate ipsius rei, a mental distinction somehow answering to some structure in the thing itself we are thinking about.16Aquinas, Commentary on the Sentences. 2.1.2.corp. Parma edition of 1858, transcribed by Robert Busa. Accessed at “Et quia unumquodque eorum est in Deo secundum sui verissimam rationem, et ratio sapientiae non est ratio bonitatis, inquantum huiusmodi, relinquitur quod sunt diversa ratione, non tantum ex parte ipsius ratiocinatis sed ex proprietate ipsius rei.” He says the divine attributes have this sort of distinction from each other and from the divine essence. It is a type of distinction that doesn’t dissolve mystery but instead is formulated only and precisely to preserve the intelligibility of asserting both, on the one hand, the multiplicity of divine attributes, and on the other hand, divine simplicity. Allan Wolter has argued that Scotus’s infamous formal distinction is functionally the same distinction.17Wolter, “The Formal Distinction,” 33-35, in Wolter, The Philosophical Theology of John Duns Scotus (St. Bonaventure, NY: The Franciscan Institute, 2015), 31–48.

Let’s call a truce: maybe no one really knows what a formal distinction is, so let’s all agree with Wolter that Aquinas and Scotus share functionally the same view about what it would take to preserve simplicity and the multiplicity of attributes. Scotus obviously supports simplicity and explicitly and frequently says that all the attributes are really the same as each other and really the same as the divine essence. He has at least four arguments for simplicity in the fourth chapter of the Treatise on the First Principle. We should take him at his word and evaluate his arguments without an agenda.

4.  Setting the Record Straight on Scotus and the Creature’s Will

But I won’t elaborate on or evaluate those arguments here. Instead, I’ll move on to consider another of Barrett’s claims against Scotus. Scotus’s account of free will, combined with univocity as Barrett understands it, is supposed to mean that “God’s will and the sinner’s will have the potential to operate independent of one another, as evident in the sinner’s ability to resist and even lose grace.”18Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 241 The key term here is “independent.” Barrett seems to mean this in a strict sense: because Scotus thought that a free will was in some sense an “uncaused cause” and because Barrett’s univocity is supposed to mean creatures no longer participate in God, we sort of get the picture—if we squint—that there could be a created free agent that didn’t depend on God in any way for its ongoing existence and acts of willing. That is a very un-Christian picture of the world, indeed.

But it is not Scotus’s picture. Every creature whatsoever is doubly dependent on God, as first efficient and as first final cause at every moment of its existence—not some time in the past for its beginning, but every moment for everything it is or has or does.19Scotus, Treatise on the First Principle 46–47. The sense in which the will is uncaused, on Scotus’s view, is this: the whole causal chain that must be in place for any creaturely act of willing to occur, does not itself determine what the will wills or whether it wills.20Scotus, Questions on the Metaphysics of Aristotle 15.20-25, trans. Girard J. Etzkorn and Allan B. Wolter, vol. 2 (St. Bonaventure, NY: The Franciscan Institute, 1998), 607–609. Instead, supplied by the causal power of the chain of causes logically preceding it, it determines for itself what it wills. Everything else in the created order is fully explicable in terms of the natures of things and their causal history. Not so the choices of free agents, but they have a causal history leading up to God no less than all other creatures.

Now several types of Christian theologians will find this account of free will objectionable on other grounds. Defending Scotus’s view against objections is not my point here. Instead, it’s to state what Scotus’s view of the will’s freedom is: not causal independence (which Scotus denies) but the indeterminacy of the will’s causes of what it wills. So “a strong degree of autonomy” follows from Scotus’s view only in the rather unsurprising and traditional sense that we can use our freedom not to will what and as God wants us to will.21Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 241.

Barrett considers Scotus’s rejection of the idea that it is a matter of necessity that God must infuse grace in order to accept the sinner (242). He blames this rejection on Scotus’s voluntarism. But notice that Aquinas thinks almost exactly the same thing. Aquinas says that God could make a will rightly disposed to its supernatural end simultaneous with its achieving that end. That proper disposition always precedes achievement is no necessity. But it is wise of God to order things sequentially this way: it is fitting for human beings to achieve their salvation in part by their meritorious works.22Aquinas, Summa theologiae 5.7.corp. The concept of fittingness (as opposed to necessity) is all over Scotus’s works, and it is implicit in Scotus’s claim that it is within God’s absolute power to accept the sinner—though this is not in fact how God has ordained things.

Barrett suggests that Scotus just barely managed not to be a Pelagian. The association of Scotus with Pelagianism is perplexing, though in this case Barrett may have been misled by Cross whose work he here follows.23Richard Cross, Duns Scotus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 110. To make the claim, in honor of God, that God could save the sinner immediately, without an infusion of grace, is not remotely Pelagian. I might as well conclude Magnum P.I.’s Ferrari is edible because it’s the same color as my apple. For Scotus the focus is on God and our dependence on God for salvation: God can save us in any number of ways, but the point is that if we are saved it will be primarily because of something God wills and does for us. For Scotus it would be metaphysically impossible for any creature to earn its salvation in some moral or legal sense of “earn” whereby God would be morally or legally bound by some system of norms external to himself to grant it salvation. God is the absolute sovereign of salvation’s economy.

5.  Conclusion: Or, A Suggestion for Writing Big Books

As should be clear by now, Barrett gets Scotus badly wrong. Of all the figures and themes Barrett addresses, Scotus is the one I know best. I focus on the thing I know best, however, not just to stay in position to nitpick authoritatively as the Scotus fanboy I am, but to make a broader methodological point about the sort of book Barrett has written. Is the historically sweeping massive tome possible to do responsibly? For Suarez, yes. Maybe for Barth. Not many others. Small-minded experts like me toil away on a few decades of theological thought. Our antennae are highly sensitive to falsehoods about what we know best. But now look: if twenty pages about the thing I know best are riddled with errors, how can I trust the remaining 850 pages about topics I know less well? I need to suspend judgment about anything Barrett has to say about someone, for example, like Zwingli, a major figure about whom I know embarrassingly little; I have no reason to assume that Barrett is a reliable guide on that topic. And so too for other topics I don’t know much about. But then, why read the book?

And if, convinced as he is that Scotus is one of the chief villains of Christian history, Barrett could barely be bothered to study Scotus’s own writings, why write the book? Notice: the Scotus stuff is not meant to be filler, on Barrett’s view. Showing up the supposed badness of Scotus (and Ockham and Biel) is “one hinge on which [the book’s] argument turns.” Accordingly, it “is one of the most important chapters in this book.”24Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal, 205.

Here is a better way: gather a team of like-minded theologians who all buy in to the argument and who bring complementary areas of expertise to the table. They can co-author a massive tome that, unlike a typical edited volume, really does have a grand argumentative structure. Someone like Barrett could supply the editorial glue to keep the project orderly and cohesive. The final product would likely have fewer factual errors than a monograph. Readers would have good prima facie reason to trust all the chapters, given the range of expertise of its contributors, even the ones on topics they don’t know much about.

Of course, if any team like this included a Scotus expert, the argument of Barrett’s book could not be made. But it would be all the better for that!


  • Tom Ward

    Thomas Ward (PhD UCLA) is a philosophy professor at Baylor University and the author of Ordered by Love (Angelico Press, 2022), Divine Ideas (Cambridge University Press, 2020) and John Duns Scotus on Parts, Wholes, and Hylomorphism (Brill, 2014). He recently completed a translation of, and commentary on, John Duns Scotus's Tractatus de Primo Principio (Hackett Publishing Co., estimated 2023).

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