Responding to Dr. Feser on the Formal Distinction

I’d like to briefly interact with a post by Dr. Edward Feser entitled Scotus on Divine Simplicity and Creation but first let me say I highly recommend Dr. Feser’s work and I also recognize he has reached a level of knowledge I will never be able to attain. With that being said, I’m a little confused by his apparent rejection of the formal distinction offered by Blessed Duns Scotus.

Dr. Feser says:

Scotus does not agree with the Thomist position that theological language is analogical.  He takes such language to be univocal.  Hence when we speak of God’s goodness or wisdom, say, we are using “goodness” and “wisdom” in the same sense as when we speak of human goodness or wisdom.  Now, as applied to human beings, “goodness” and “wisdom” are to be defined differently, and so they are also to be defined differently when applied to God.  But that entails, for Scotus, that there is a formal distinction between God’s goodness and God’s wisdom.

Dr. Jared Goff, a Scotist scholar, stated in an interview I conducted with him here, that univocity for Scotus applies to theological language and syllogisms. However, there is still room for analogical language in Scotism, as can be seen in the writings of Scotus himself. Assuming this is true, it is important for the reader to keep this in mind, because when Dr. Feser correctly notes the Scotist rejects analogical language when speaking of “theological language”, the reader may not be aware that Scotus still made room for analogical language elsewhere. With that distinction to the side, Dr. Feser seems to indicate the Scotist formal distinction was born out of a univocal approach to language, and presumably, we should reject it if we are to maintain analogical language.

If I have understood Dr. Feser correctly (and there is a strong possibility I have not), I do not believe it logically follows that the formal distinction itself is beyond repair. Just because Scotus formulated the distinction because of his commitment to univocity, doesn’t mean one cannot use the concept and adapt it to an analogical approach to language. Is there anything inherent in the formal distinction itself which excludes its use by a Thomist? Dr. Mark Spencer, and Gennadios Scholarios, seem to deny any conclusion of the sort in this paper and in this article. Therefore, I would be inclined to agree with them over Dr. Feser, unless the latter can demonstrate why the formal distinction itself is unsound.

Assuming there is nothing inherent in the formal distinction that makes its use by the Thomist inadmissible, it might be worthy to considers its application for the essence and energies debate, as I briefly demonstrated here. I’ll admit, Dr. Feser’s apparent rejection of the formal distinction was in the context of theological language, creation and voluntarism, but the reader is left with the impression that he rejects the formal distinction in principle because he also states:

For example, Thomists would reject Scotus’s view that theological language is univocal, his notion of a formal distinction, and his voluntarist account of the will.

It is this seemingly sweeping rejection of the formal distinction that may need to be questioned further, for the reasons I’ve stated above.

grad-school-1Michael Lofton grew up in Israel and is a graduate of Christendom College Graduate School of Theology where he received his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. He has appeared on EWTN, SiriusXM Radio, Radio Maria and has contributed frequently to several websites and blogs. He is an Associate Editor at Christendom Graduate School and is the founder of Ancient Faith Apparel and Renewal Publications. 



2 thoughts on “Responding to Dr. Feser on the Formal Distinction

  1. lee faber

    See my post here on the same issue:

    That analogy and univocity are compatible IN THE SAME CONCEPT is the position of the entire Scotist school, the only exceptions being Mayronis and Bonetus. I am not sure why you mean by analogy ‘ad intra’. The Scotist position is that our cognition of the world results in complex concepts of creation, say the concept of a cat. We can purify or separate out from this concept and arrive at the concept of ‘finite being’; we can abstract further to simply ‘being’ and then conceive of ‘infinite being’. Once we have made this process, the concept of ‘finite’ in ‘finite being’ is analogous to the concept of ‘infinite; in ”infinite being’. This reflections reality, for outside the soul all created beings depend on and are attributed to the first being, God.

    Also, I haven’t read Feser’s post in a while, but formal distinction and univocity are not depenent on each other or derived from each other. The formal distincton is also applied in the created world, such as in the theory of individuation. It so happens that when Scotus proves that the divine attributes are formally distinct in God, he first proves that they are pure perfections and pure perfections are univocal. So it is not like there is no connection, but it is not a logical one.


    1. Michael

      Thank you for this input. I’m still learning. Can you help me on how I can explain analogy from a Scotistic perspective better than how I phrased it as pertaining to God “ad intra?” What I was getting at is that syllogisms require univocity but when a Scotists actually thinks of God as He is ad intra then they are not using univocity but affirm analogy. Is that accurate and if so how could I express that better?


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