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  • Chatton and Ockham: A Fourteenth Century Discussion on Philosophical and Theological Concepts of God
  • Jenny Pelletier (bio)

In one of his Quodlibeta, William of Ockham entertains two concepts of God, one theological and the other philosophical. He argues that conclusions involving a theological concept of God are believable and can only be established in theology where recourse to faith is permissible. By contrast, conclusions involving a philosophical concept of God are knowable and can be proved in philosophy and theology. The source of these two concepts lies in the Sentences commentary of his confrère Walter Chatton,1 who explores how different descriptions of God affect the provability of theological conclusions about God. Chatton himself is reacting to Ockham’s earlier Sentences commentary where Ockham suggests that a theologian and a philosopher can prove the same conclusion if that conclusion is naturally knowable.2

Chatton and Ockham’s brief but dense discussion evokes well-known medieval themes falling under the rubric of faith and reason, i.e. [End Page 147] what we know as opposed to what we believe about God in this life, the relationship between philosophy and theology, the handmaiden status of philosophy. Their debate takes a noteworthy turn when they move from an immediate concern about theological vs. philosophical knowledge of God to more general issues belonging to philosophy of science and concept formation including the unity of scientific knowledge, the subject of scientific knowledge, the construction of demonstrations, the nature and role of middle terms, and the formation of simple and complex concepts.

In what follows, I examine question 1, article 3 from the prologue to Chatton’s Sentences commentary where Chatton’s point of departure is Ockham’s Sentences commentary. Chatton carefully constructs what he takes to be a plausible alternative to the position he attributes to Ockham on the acceptable provability of certain conclusions across theology and philosophy. In doing so, he introduces the notion that different concepts of God influence the epistemic status of the conclusions that they figure in and broadens the discussion to include the afore-mentioned more general issues. I then look at Ockham’s Quodlibet 5, q. 1, where he responds explicitly to Chatton. My aim in this paper is to call attention to the complexity of their discussion, which bifurcates along two clearly delineated yet interconnected lines. The first concentrates on theology and philosophy specifically and the distinction between what we might call findings of reason and findings of faith with respect to God. The second focuses on scientific knowledge generally. Both Franciscans treat the first in a manner consistent with the second, evidently conceiving of the two as conjoined. The result is a rich and multi-faceted discussion.


The titular question posed in q. 1, a. 3 is whether some purely theological truth about God is as evident as a conclusion that is proved in some naturally discovered [naturaliter inventae] science. Chatton begins by presenting a view he finds in Ockham’s Sentences commentary: many theological truths are evident because they are proved by natural reason in other sciences, e.g. “God exists,” “God is wise,” and “God is good.”3 I take “scientia naturalis” and “scientia naturaliter inventa” to refer to philosophy, that is, to bodies of scientific knowledge like physics and metaphysics whose conclusions are provable on the basis of natural human [End Page 148] powers without any supernatural assistance. Chatton adduces three of Ockham’s arguments that support the following two interrelated claims:

  1. 1. some p can be proved in – can be a conclusion in – some natural science and theology

    because more generally,

  2. 2. some p can be proved in – can be a conclusion in – different sciences4

“God is good” is an example of a naturally provable proposition that is a conclusion in philosophy as well as in theology. As Chatton suggests, Ockham holds (2) in part because of his aggregate conception of science, that one science is a collection of various knowledge acts by which distinct conclusions are known.5 Ockham seems to think that the sharing of conclusions across sciences (2) is consistent with this conception of a science.6 Note that (2) is distinct from the claim that a...


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pp. 147-167
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