Watch my latest video, “Maybe there is a literal meaning” on YouTube!

In this video, I try to nuance the concept of the “literal” meaning of Scripture in response to Jonathan Pageau. I bring Augustine’s theory of signs and things as well as Maximus the Confessor on the Bible, closing with my own literal-symbolic reading of the Ascension narrative from Acts 1.

God is not a thing — but is he a res?

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne.

A few weeks ago I had the delightful opportunity of teaching my excellent group of students at Davenant Hall De Doctrina Christiana by St Augustine, or On Christian Teaching. In De Doctrina, St Augustine deals with the important question of language (for how can we read and interpret Scripture without thinking about what it actually is?). His basic approach to language is that it is part of the wider universe of signs, or signa, all of which point to things, or res. Some signa are natural, like smoke being the signum for the res that is a fire. Others are human conventions, such as language. All signa are res, but not all res are signa. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Language is made up of oral signa that disappear as soon as they come into existence. To represent these oral signa, we have invented writing, itself a further system of signa that represent the res that are the signa of spoken words.

Augustine then goes into a discussion of how all res can either be enjoyed (frui) or used (uti). Ultimately, in Augustine’s view, God is the only res that we are to enjoy. All other res exist for the purpose of being used to help us enjoy God more. At a certain level, all res may even be seen as signa that point us to God, depending on how you look at it.

And the ultimate signum that shows us the way to God is the incarnate God Himself, the perfect signum for the res that God is.

But wait —

Is God a thing?

One of my students expressed his surprise at Augustine having included God amongst the res. This student even has a copy of a book called God Is No Thing, after all. As people who think that Thomas Aquinas is the height of theological awesomeness like to point out, God is not even a being. God is being itself (FYI: St Augustine agrees, see De Trin 5) — ipsum esse.

Not being deep into scholasticism, I won’t judge the accuracy of that.

God is not a thing inasmuch as God is not a being among beings. God is not an object among objects. God, then, is not a thing among things.

However, for St Augustine’s argument about signa and how they work, God is a res — he is the signified of a signifier. Or is the signified of a signifier actually our own false mental image of God, and Godinhimself is something more distant?

Augustine feels this, and we’ll leave this post here confronting the vast mystery of the divine:

Have I spoken of God, or uttered His praise, in any worthy way?  Nay, I feel that I have done nothing more than desire to speak; and if I have said anything, it is not what I desired to say.  How do I know this, except from the fact that God is unspeakable?  But what I have said, if it had been unspeakable, could not have been spoken.  And so God is not even to be called “unspeakable,” because to say even this is to speak of Him.  Thus there arises a curious contradiction of words, because if the unspeakable is what cannot be spoken of, it is not unspeakable if it can be called unspeakable.  And this opposition of words is rather to be avoided by silence than to be explained away by speech.  And yet God, although nothing worthy of His greatness can be said of Him, has condescended to accept the worship of men’s mouths, and has desired us through the medium of our own words to rejoice in His praise.  For on this principle it is that He is called Deus (God).  For the sound of those two syllables in itself conveys no true knowledge of His nature; but yet all who know the Latin tongue are led, when that sound reaches their ears, to think of a nature supreme in excellence and eternal in existence.

De Doctrina 1.6, NPNF2, vol. 2, p. 524