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  • The Formal Constituent of the Divine NatureIn Peter Ledesma, John of St. Thomas, and Vincent Contenson
  • Brian T. Carl

THROUGHOUT HIS CAREER, St. Thomas Aquinas appeals to Zechariah 14:9 in order to contrast the knowledge of God's essence in statu viae with the knowledge of that essence enjoyed by the blessed: "In that day, the Lord will be one, and His name will be one."1 For Aquinas, the multiplicity of the divine names is a necessary feature of human knowledge of God in this life, to be contrasted with the unified vision of the divine essence in the life to come. God is named as he is known, and he is known to us in this life through the created perfections that are his effects. Likeness of the simple, infinite divine perfection cannot be communicated to finite creatures except in multiplicity, and so to the multiplicity of created perfections there corresponds a necessary multiplicity of divine names.

And yet, among the names given to God in this life, Aquinas privileges the name revealed in Exodus 3:14, identifying qui est as the most proper name of God. The propriety of qui est as a divine name within Aquinas's theology is linked to the centrality of esse within his metaphysics: qui est is the most proper divine name, Aquinas explains, because it signifies existence, and in [End Page 59] God alone essence and existence are identical.2 But what is the relationship between qui est (or ipsum esse) and other divine names, which are all in some way less proper?

Among Thomists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there is a frequently held position about how to understand the centrality of being in our conception of the divine essence. Many Thomists of this period hold that there is a single "formal constituent of the divine essence in our understanding" or "metaphysical essence of God." By this, these Thomists mean that there is a single notion that functions, in our understanding of the divine essence, in the way that a specific difference functions in our understanding of a created essence: this notion both (1) distinguishes God from all other things and (2) serves as the root (radix) from which all of his other attributes are derived, as properties are derived from a specific difference. There is, according to this view, some single notion or concept that radically unifies our knowledge of God in this life, in the way that a difference or definition radically unifies the knowledge of a created essence. There is general agreement among Thomists of this period that this formal constituent or metaphysical essence of God is ens a se (sometimes formulated negatively only as aseitas), ipsum esse subsistens, actus purus, or some similar notion associated with being or act.3 The general consensus on this point was reflected and reinforced by the twenty-third of the Twenty-Four Thomistic [End Page 60] Theses promulgated by the Sacred Congregation of Studies in 1914.4

The doctrine and the terminology of a formal constituent or metaphysical essence of God has its origins in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Scholasticism. A full historical account of the development of this notion is beyond the scope of the present inquiry. This study primarily concerns the theories of the formal constituent of the divine essence or nature articulated by three Dominicans: Peter Ledesma (1544-1616), John of St. Thomas (1589-1644), and Vincent Contenson (1641-74). With respect to the many other authors who contribute to the development of this topic, I will limit myself to offering some comparative references, without advancing definite claims about lines of influence or originality.

Although I cannot claim that he is the originator of this view, Contenson is the earliest Thomist I have discovered who explicitly holds the position adopted by many late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Thomists that ipsum esse or ens a se is the single notion (i) that distinguishes God from all things, (ii) from which all the divine attributes can be derived.5 [End Page 61] Contenson's position on the formal constituent of the divine essence represents a great simplification relative to the complex discussions of...


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