“God” as the name of a nature

(I’ve been tinkering with this all night, though I had to take a few hours off for a dinner party)

Dale Tuggy has a several-months-old poll that asks which of the following claims is false:

  1. The Christian God is a self.
  2. The Christian God is the Trinity.
  3. The Trinity is not a self.

One wonders if all we have here is the old dispute about hypostasis or substance returning in the modern world self. Overtones of the problem remain in the word substance, which means (even in English) both an individual and a kind of thing. This instability in the concept reflects the perplexity of human mind, which is aware that individual things exist but is unable to understand them except as sorts of things. Though we want “self” to mean the peculiar individual who is just this and no other, the word will necessarily and spontaneously mean a sort of thing, namely a nature that can direct his own acts, that exists of itself, etc.

But an ambiguity that is more illustrative of the relation between “God” and “self” can be seen in a word like president. On the one hand, we use this to speak of an office that is communicable to many and distinct from any one occupying it. On the other hand, “president” can be taken as the name of an individual. “God” appears to have the same basic structure: it is the name for a dignity, a topmost place in a universal hierarchy, etc. So far as we take it in this way, it is not the name of a self. But in a secondary sense the term extends to the one who holds the dignity or is at the top of the hierarchy, and for this reason “God” naturally extends its meaning to what possesses that nature.

Following out an insight like this, St. Thomas wouldn’t consider it odd to deny 1. “God” for him was first of all a nature as opposed to a proper name. Dale takes the term in this sense too, since he is speaking of the Christian God, which clearly takes “God” as a generic term that admits of specification (presumably, adding “Christian” just specifies we are speaking about the Christian take on this generic nature – “the Christian God” is not a personal name). So if we take “self” as describing an individual as opposed to a kind of thing (which seems to be what we mean first), then it is straightforwardly false that God is a self, just as the president is not a self but an office that could be held by any number of individual selves.

Perhaps executive would be an even better example, since it is the name of an office that can be held by one or many at once, though it can also be the name of an individual…

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