‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 1: Onto-Theology in Classical Sacramental Theology

Symbol and Sacrament Posts: Introduction, Chapter 2:IChapter 2:II, Chapter 3, Chapter 4:IChapter 4:II, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, Chapter 7

Chauvet’s Symbol and Sacrament begins with the question of the reason why the Scholastics privileged the category of ‘cause’ when thinking about the divine grace involved in the sacraments. Surely grace is ‘the paradigmatic case of something that is a non-object, a non-value’ (7). Instrumental and productionist language seems to be a more inappropriate form of analogy to this reality. Chauvet maintains that the Scholastics thought in this way because, given the metaphysical presuppositions of their culture, they couldn’t do otherwise.

The Scholastics appreciated that their language was not always apt to the reality that it sought to describe and occasionally reflected on the disparity between the two, but never took this disparity ‘as a point of departure and as a framework’ for their thought. They could not do this, because these metaphysical presuppositions of ‘onto-theology’ were foundational to the entire structure of their thought. Chauvet argues that there is a way of ‘starting from and remaining within this disparity’, as we start with language, or the ‘symbolic’ (9).

By taking such a starting point for his analysis, the explicit target of Chauvet’s criticism is seen to be the schemes that provide the underlying logic of the Scholastic approaches, rather than the particular themes that their metaphysics sought to address.

Thomas Aquinas on the Causality of the Sacraments

Chauvet proceeds to examine the approach of Thomas Aquinas in particular:

[T]o a first movement of exterior worship, ascending through Christ toward God, there corresponds a second movement, one of justification and sanctification, descending from God through Christ toward humankind; and this second movement is, for Thomas, theologically primary. (10)

Chauvet believes that a weakness of Thomas’ approach is seen in the degree to which it is weighted so strongly in favour of this second movement. This weighting occurs as the second movement is regarded by Thomas as the ‘central character of their efficacy’, and also on account of the ‘sign’ and ‘cause’ schema that shapes his account of the mode of this efficacy.

Chauvet explores the manner in which Thomas’ understanding of sacramental causality shifted between the Commentary on the Sentences (1254-56) and the writing of the Third Part of the Summa Theologica (1272-73).

While in the Summa, a sacrament in general … is a sign having this special character of causing what it signifies, in the Sentences, a sacrament is a cause … having this special character … of signifying what it causes. (11)

Between these two works, Thomas moves away from the primacy of the ‘medicinal’ function of the sacraments to that of their ‘sanctifying’ function. The medicinal analogy neatly corresponds to the idea of efficient causality – the sacraments are the divine medicines which ‘cause’ spiritual health. However, the focus on their sanctifying function shifts attention to the formal and final cause of holiness.

This does not mean that Thomas comes to reject the efficient causality of the sacraments altogether, but rather he seeks to define the sacraments in a manner that ‘makes no mention of causality’ (12). Of the various definitions of the sacraments available to him, Thomas shows a preference for that of Augustine – ‘the sign of a sacred thing’ – apparently without feeling the need that other Scholastics seemed to feel to augment this definition with explicit reference to causality (for Thomas, it is ‘the sign of a sacred thing insofar as it sanctifies human beings’). For Thomas signification and causality are not placed on the same level. As Chauvet observes: ‘Defined as signs, the sacraments bring about only what they signify, and that according to the manner in which it is signified’ (15). Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of such an approach is that it enables us to take the act of the Church in worship as the starting point for our sacramental theology.

However, despite privileging the sign over causality, Thomas struggles to account for his completed formula (‘…insofar as it sanctifies human beings’) in terms of anything other than those of causality. Between writing the Commentary and the Summa, Thomas moved from understanding the sacraments in terms of one type of efficient causality to another, from disposing causality to instrumental causality.

Thomas was opposed to the notion of the ‘occasional causality’ of the sacraments, which viewed their relationship to grace as akin to the relationship between an IOU note and that which it promises, two heterogeneous realities brought together merely by the free and arbitrary fiat of God, without any closer correspondence. Under such an understanding, the sacraments themselves do not actually ‘cause grace’, as Thomas believed that the Fathers taught.

Thomas’ original response in Commentary was to appeal to disposing causality: although only God can give grace, the sacraments ‘dispose’ the soul to receive grace, which God then necessarily gives, provided that the one receiving them does not present an obstacle to their operation (17). Following the Arab philosopher, Avicenna, Thomas distinguishes between the disposing cause, which prepares the matter, and the perfecting cause, which affects the form (a distinction that he also applies in relating the human and divine natures of Christ). The problem that all of these approaches wrestle with is that sign and cause seem to be heterogeneous realities, which like oil and water cannot easily be combined, no matter how much our theological convictions tell us that they ought to be.

In the Summa, Thomas chooses the approach of Averroes and Aristotle (‘the principal cause moves; the instrumental cause, being moved, moves’) over that of Avicenna (‘the giver of the form effects; the preparer of the matter disposes’). The instrumental cause is thus akin to the paintbrush in the hands of the artist, while the principal cause is the vision of the completed painting in the mind of the artist. The paintbrush operates out of its own form as a paintbrush, but only ‘causes’ the painting by virtue of the design of the artist and his agency in employing it. One of the important effects of this approach is to resist the reification of grace, which is ‘contained’ in the sacraments not as a thing, but much as the painter imposes an ‘impetus’ upon the paintbrush in order to achieve the intended result of the painting.

This movement in understanding of causality shapes Thomas’ understanding of Christology. Whereas the Commentary upon the Sentences presented Christ’s human nature merely as the disposing cause in relation to his divine nature and our salvation (leading to a reservation in attributing divine efficacy to the human nature), in the Summa the relationship is far more immediate, as the human nature is the instrumental cause of Christ’s divinity and our salvation. The distinction between the human nature of Christ and the sacraments as instrumental causes is that the former is a conjoined cause, while the latter remain distinct, akin to the distinction between the artist’s hand and his brush (20). ‘The sacraments are thus appreciated as prolongations of the sanctified humanity of Christ’ (21).

The Productionist Paradigm

For Thomas, the only conceivable mode by which the sacraments can convey what they signify is through the mode of causality, which is why the model of the ‘instrument’ dominates his thinking. Despite frequent qualifications, and his recognition that the model is only an analogy, this ‘technical model of cause and effect’ exerts a considerable influence on his entire approach.

Chauvet highlights the manner in which the metaphysical, onto-theological thought of the West rendered the notion of ‘a permanent state of incompleteness … any thought which would not come to rest in a final term’ as unthinkable. Becoming falls outside the realm of the good, always looking beyond itself and finding no rest in itself without dying. All becoming is subordinated to being: all of our becoming only exists for the sake of being something or other (23). All of this is bound up with the ‘productionist paradigm’ where all ‘happening’ seeks to arrive at a settled final term, much as the practice of shipbuilding exists purely for the sake of the existence of boats (25).

Language and Being

Following Heidegger, Chauvet speaks of the ‘forgetting of the “ontological difference”’ or ‘the difference between being and entities’ in traditional metaphysics (26). For traditional metaphysics, being is regarded as the common trait of all entities, something that renders them ‘fundamentally identical’ on account of their sharing of this common property. Being is the universal substrate, or underlying ‘stuff’, concealed beneath every entity. This notion of being leads to a preoccupation with some ‘foundational being’, which provides the ground for all others. This foundational being is habitually identified as God. Individual entities are related to this foundational being by means of analogy – the analogy of being (analogia entis) – in a hierarchical order akin to the pyramid’s ascension to its summit.

This metaphysical approach is essentially and necessarily dualistic, a dualism that can be articulated in various forms (29). Most noticeably in Plato, but also in Aristotle, a ‘rupture’ is created between being and language. Being comes to be regarded as ‘something facing human beings which stands by itself’, outside of the realm of human speaking and thinking (30). Language is no longer, as Heidegger contests that it was for the pre-Socratics, seen to be ‘the heart of the real’, the place where nature bursts forth, and ‘where the world happens’, but is reduced to a pale reflection of the realm of being.

In this paradigm, words are the signs of ideas, and ideas are the likeness of things. The linguistic signifier is bound to the signified idea in a purely conventional relationship. Language is nothing more than an ‘instrumental intermediary’ between being and humans: it is no longer ‘the meeting place where being and humankind mutually stepped forward toward one another’ (33).

Being is identified with absolute presence, while language is by its very nature an unreliable translator, with meaning spilling like water through the crooked fingers of its cupped hands. In an ideal world we wouldn’t use the clumsy instrument of language (or the body) at all, but would communicate like angels are supposed to, mental idea to mental idea. Language is conceived of as an obstacle, which we must bear with as an aspect of our imprisoned state in the realm of the sensible, and because no more exalted means of communication is afforded to us. As our weak and clumsy ‘instruments’, language and the body stand in a subservient and subordinate relationship to ‘an ideal human essence’ (34). Within this paradigm, one cannot think of language and the body as forming the environment in which truth happens.

This metaphysical approach is also related to the subject-object distinction, most powerfully articulated in Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (35). Being is outside language, and language is merely an instrument. Being and humankind stand in ‘face-to-face’ relation, and no longer belong to each other. In Descartes, the human being becomes the ‘subject’, the ‘unique center of reference’: every other entity must now appear on this stage, as a picture to the human subject.

For this picture to work, being cannot be located and caught up within the hurly-burly of language (to borrow Wittgenstein’s language). Descartes and those within this tradition are forgetful of the fact that the subject is always caught up within the very language that he speaks: our language possesses us as much as we possess it. We do not utter judgments upon reality from a great detached height, but rather negotiate a language that orders a universe into a structured ‘world’, a world in which I always already find myself, and by which I myself am ordered (a ‘world’ is an organized form of being or way of life, akin to the way we speak of the ‘Roman world’, the ‘world of politics’, or the personal ‘world’ in which I operate, and should be distinguished from the concept of the ‘universe’ as the totality of things).

God and Man in the Metaphysical Tradition

This metaphysical tradition had a huge influence upon Christian theology and on its understanding of the relationship between God and mankind. YHWH became identified with the foundational being. The possibility and necessity of the doctrine of analogy arose from the postulation of a particular form of relation between God and the creature, a relation bound up with the metaphysical tradition. In his proofs for the existence of God, Thomas concludes by identifying the first mover, first efficient cause, and final cause with God (‘and this all understand to be God’). Chauvet observes that this identification occurs outside of the argument itself, presented as something that no reasonable person could deny, as the conclusion ‘was already contained in the forgotten starting point of metaphysics: onto-theology’ (40).

In criticizing the place that analogy held within Thomas’ theology, Chauvet is not suggesting that we can get by without it, but that we should be more aware and accepting of the conflict inherent within it:

As a doctrine validating the truth of our language about God, that is, guaranteeing the adequacy of our judgments concerning the divine reality, analogy erases the internal conflict inherent to any discourse. However, this conflict cannot be resolved; rather, it must be managed – and precisely through the mediation of language: once we are able to say it, we are able to live it as the ever-open place where the true nature of what we are in our relations with others and with God may become reality. (41)

Chauvet observes that the problems of onto-theology persist, even in negative (or apophatic) theology, which is still wedded to the metaphysical concept of God as the ‘supreme Entity’ (42). ‘The critical thrust for Christian theology does not consist in the apophatic purification of our concepts in order to express God but rather in the use that we make of these concepts, that is, in the attitude, idolatrous or not, they elicit from us.’

In this study of analogy and negative theology, Chauvet may appear to have strayed somewhat from his point. However, its relevance is seen in the fact that, in rejecting the onto-theology of traditional metaphysics, we can ‘embrace … the symbolic scheme of language, of culture, and of desire’ and in so doing ‘set up a discourse from which the believing subject is inseparable’ (43). In grasping truth, we are already grasped by it. This leads to a different understanding of our relationship to God from that of the ‘productionist scheme of causality’.


Summing up the argument of the chapter, Chauvet returns to the question of why Thomas, in seeking to express the sacramental relation between God and man expressed by the term ‘grace’ took the route of causality, rather than some route better suited to expressing the ‘non-value’ of grace. While ‘symbol’ is ‘the way of the non-value because it is the way of the never-finished reversible exchange in which every subject comes to be,’ such an approach contravenes the principles of the metaphysical tradition, which only admits the logic of ‘a first cause and of an absolute foundation for the totality of existents; that of a center playing the role of a fixed point; that of a presence, faultless, constant, and stable’ (44). Symbol, being without such limits, and not coming to a settled rest in a final term, cannot be rendered congruent to such a paradigm. It is on account of this scheme that the relationship between God and man in the sacraments in ‘unavoidably represented according to the technical and productionist scheme of instrumentality and causality – with every attempt being made to “purify” this scheme by the use of analogy.’

Chauvet suggests that the character of grace finds powerful illustration in the manna that God gave to the Israelites in the wilderness. The very name of the manna is a question – ‘what is this?’. Its consistency is at once of something and of nothing – ‘as fine as frost on the ground’ yet which melts in the sun. Even in gathering and storing it, logic seems to be absent. The quantity that people gather is uncertain and those who gather more have none left over, while those who gather less experience no lack. Those who seek to accumulate it for the future find that it breeds worms and starts to stink. This illustrates the character of ‘grace as a question, grace as a non-thing, grace as a non-value,’ which must be approached by means of the route of symbol, ‘the path of non-calculation and non-utility’ (45).

This chapter poses the question that Chauvet will seek to answer in the rest of the book: can the sacraments be delivered from the control of the ‘instrumental and causal system’ of traditional metaphysics’ onto-theology and come to be understood as symbols, language acts that enable the ‘unending transformation of subjects into believing subjects’? In the next post we will proceed to look at the start of his answer.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in My Reading, Philosophy, Reviews, The Sacraments, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to ‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 1: Onto-Theology in Classical Sacramental Theology

  1. Pingback: Blogging Through Chauvet’s ‘Symbol and Sacrament’ – Introduction | Alastair's Adversaria

  2. Pingback: ‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 2:I: Heidegger and the Overcoming of Metaphysics | Alastair's Adversaria

  3. Pingback: ‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 2:II: Theology After Heidegger | Alastair's Adversaria

  4. Pingback: ‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 3: Subjects and Mediation | Alastair's Adversaria

  5. Pingback: ‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 4:I: The Symbol and the Sign | Alastair's Adversaria

  6. Pingback: ‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 4:II: Language and the Body | Alastair's Adversaria

  7. Pingback: ‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 5: The Structure of Christian Identity | Alastair's Adversaria

  8. Pingback: ‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 7: Sacrament and Ethics | Alastair's Adversaria

  9. Pingback: ‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 6: Scripture and Sacrament | Alastair's Adversaria

  10. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2011-2012 | Alastair's Adversaria

  11. Maginel Galt says:

    Thank you so much for these wonderful summaries and reflections – so helpful!

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