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Modern Theology 27:1 January 2011

ISSN 0266-7177 (Print)

ISSN 1468-0025 (Online)




Modernity is marked by a disenchantment that ssures the ontological, the
phenomenal and the semiotic-hermeneutic. While modern scientistic ontologies seek to invoke unseeable or minimally perceptible mechanical or
random structures as the only true reality, modern construals of narrative and
ction are unhinged from the world of being and seeing. Following Michel
Foucault, we can say that the disenchantment of modernity rests (at least in
part) on the disjunction of language from reality. Whereas for Aristotle and
the High Middle Ages our thoughts and our words were construed as possessing an intrinsic isomorphism with being and vision,1 from William of
Ockham onwards, language was reconstituted as the empirical upshot of the
purely contingent, accidental and extrinsic observation of randomly ordered
individual things by the human mind. On the Ockhamist viewwhich is the
view of modernitywhile language may represent things to ourselves, it
does so in a mode wholly apart from any ontological order within which our
knowing and speaking may be included.
This article explores and expands the way the primacy of language
which is the primacy of poesisdemands a pattern of metaphysical speculation bound to the narratological and phenomenological reality of the
world as such. In this fashion what follows is a partial exposition of what
is entailed by the injunction I put forward in my little book on Henri de
Lubac, The Suspended Middle. In that book (among other things) I argued
that a newly enhanced pattern of speculation is required in the wake
of the Lubacian paradox of the surnaturela paradox, I suggested, that
equally deconstructs the possibility of dogmatic theology as previously
understood in the modern period as well as the possibility of philosophical
theology and the autonomous practice of philosophy tout court.2 Under
this paradoxical condition, as I claimed, theology must recover afresh its
John Milbank
Department of Theology, University of Nottingham, University Park, Nottingham, NG7 2RD,
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148 John Milbank

mystagogical form. Theology after its deconstruction by de Lubac can no
longer proceed in terms either systematic or dogmatic in the heretofore
modern sense of those words; rather theology should now be a mystical
reading of signs and events. This ethos further underpinned aspects of my
recent book of poetry, The Legend of Death.3 In those pages I attempted a
poetic (and hence theological) articulation of the diagonal axis of the mystagogicalan axis neither purely vertical (angelic) nor purely horizontal
(material) but a blending of both. In what follows I suggest that the diagonal axis of this newly enhanced poetical speculation involves a Thomistic
Kabbalah. Key to this argument is a signicant invocation and debt
throughout this essay to the work of one of the most important living
French Thomists, Olivier-Thomas Venard OP. Joining with Venards careful
exposition of a participational linguistic turn latently but crucially discernable in the thought of Thomas Aquinas, I seek here to offer the
lineaments of a poetic Thomism that constitutes the possibility of an
alternative modernity by allowing a fresh prospect for healing the dissociation of the science of being from the phenomenal and hermeneutical
embeddings in which our lives are constituted.
1. Introit
In his highly signicant trilogy, Thomas dAquin, pote thologien,4 Venard
seeks to develop a theological poetics which in some respects complements,
and in others implicitly modies, Hans Urs von Balthasars theological aesthetics. This takes the form of a Thomistic theology of language, literature and
the phenomenon of Holy Scripture.
Three scholarly cities resound through its pages. They are the stage posts of
Venards life so far: Paris, Toulouse, Jerusalem.
Paris, where he studied French literature, is the site of the story of modern
literature and poetics. Toulouse is the mother city of the Dominican order, to
which he belongs, and in which he was trained in the relatively more conservative school of French Thomismthe other being Le Saulchoir, near Paris.
Jerusalem is the city where he now works in the Dominican cole Biblique, the
mother city of the three monotheistic faiths, saturated with the memory of the
revealed word and the history of reection upon language and divinity.
How do these three civic inuences come together in Venards youthful
magnum opus? Only gradually, for in the course of the three volumes one can
see the progression of a pilgrim from Paris, through Toulouse to Jerusalem.
2. From Paris to Toulouse
The Parisian legacy permits Venard to approach the question of modernity
from the angle of literature.5 Mallarm and Rimbaud invented literary
modernism through the quest for an absolute language that would perfectly
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On Thomistic Kabbalah 149

convey the inter-resonance of all the senses and the inner essence of real
existences. In this respect, they continued Baudelaires quest for a poetic
alchemy, yet by abandoning his demonically-witnessed Catholicism, they
sought for an absolutism of the immanent word itself, only newly obtainable
by the systematic derangement of the senses in order to achieve synaesthesia
as delirium, and the systematic rearrangement of verbal forms in order to
achieve a perfect substitution for reality. In the case of Mallarm one has, in
consequence, a poetics of ideal absence. In the case of Rimbaud, a continued
Cratylism is more concerned with a quest for a magical control of reality
through language.
Yet already, at the age of nineteen, Rimbaud decided that such a quest was
only more than illusory insofar as it led one into the hellish depths of a
parody of Christianity. That religion, he had come to see, already offered in a
hyperbolic form, just what he, in atheistic guise, was pathetically trying to
re-invent. The Logos of God himself, impersonating humanity, had once and
for all provided in the gospels a verbal alchemy able to transform material
reality into the body of divinity in the event of transguration in the Eucharist. Moreover, this verbal transguration had once upon-a-time, in the Medieval era, allowed charity to ow upon this earth. Since Rimbaud now realises
that he has been committing the ultimate blasphemy, setting himself up as
anti-Christ, he also sees that he has never escaped from his baptism after all,
for he is unable in the end to experience his revolutionary poetic quest as
anything other than a season in hell.
What is remarkable here, as Venard sees, is that Rimbaud refused at
this point to embark upon the Nietzschean, postmodern path. He did not
proclaim that hell was in reality heaven, or that, in the face of the impossibility of either immanent verbal Platonic forms, or the attainment of magical
power and self-liberation through a perfect onomatopoeia, one should
nonetheless continue to play the game of striving towards what one knows
can never be achieved. He did not, like later deconstructionists, suggest
that the height of culture is the endless setting up of linguistic Aunt-Sallies
destined soon to be knocked over. Rather, he abandoned all notions of
metaphysical-ethical drama in favour of a life of humdrum utility and
minimal mutual convenience. All the nobility of religion and morality was
henceforward abandoned as sheerly mythical, and no immanent or humanist ideological framework was offered in its place. Rimbaud, before he was
twenty, arrived at his own banal end of history in a decision that arguably
was far more prophetic than the more dramatic gestures of Nietzsche,
Freud, and Marx.
Atheism, Rimbaud had therefore concluded, meant the end of poetry,
because anti-theological poetry cannot escape the idiom and experience of
the demonic, and so the theological framework in a negative mode. It then
fell to his profound admirer, Paul Claudel, to embrace Rimbauds insights
more positively: the Incarnation was the redemption of the world through the
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unleashing of an unlimited poesis, which is a work of divine-human synergy,
not a refusal or denial of God. Sensory delirium, absolute formlessness and
the triumph of linguistic irony might be here refused; all the same, Baudelaire, Mallarm and Rimbaud allowed Claudel newly to see that revelation
involves a certain perturbation of sensory experience and that the arrival
of the innite Word in nite words rebukes all classicism and calls for a
ceaseless if measured reinvention of poetic form.
It is this Claudelian programme which Venard wishes to carry forwards
by integrating it with a Thomistic perspective. Of course one can note a
parallel to Balthasar here, to whom Venard is indeed explicitly indebted.
However, there are also signicant differences, at least of emphasis.
First of all, Venard is much more consistently Thomistic, where Balthasar
tended to veer between Aquinas and Bonaventure. Venard thereby echoes
the afnity between the subjective austerity of modernism and the formal
laconism of Aquinas that bore fruit in the aesthetic reections of Jacques
Secondly (and this will seem to many to contradict the rst point, though
I shall soon argue that it does not), Venard never seeks procedurally to
distinguish between an aesthetic or poetic prologue to theology and theology proper. Rather, following Claudels theologically postmodernist (i.e.
post-Rimbaudian) conclusions, he argues in the second volume of his trilogy,
Le langue de lineffable, that metaphysics depends upon a magical poetics
and that only the theology of revelation (sacra doctrina) underwrites such an
enterprise.6 In consequence, this volume is, according to its subtitle, an Essai
sur le fondement thologique de la mtaphysique. Venard seeks accordingly to
show that there is, in Aquinas himself, an implicit level of conceptuality
for which sacra doctrina contains both the theology done by philosophy and
sacra doctrina understood in a narrower sense.
Thirdly, it is crucial that Venard offers a poetics rather than an aesthetics.
More than Balthasar, and in keeping with the researches of the literary
scholar Alain Michel, Venard insists that, both historically and conceptually,
aesthetics and rhetoric (in the broadest sense) belong together.7 Beauty, as
Balthasar argued, is to do with glory, manifestation. But this means, as once
Claudel and now Jean-Louis Chrtien point out, that the visible speaks
that standing before the experience of the beautiful vision as something that
terries us and commands us by manifesting something that is more than
its visible self, we undergo a certain unsettling of the senses, whereby when
we see, we seem also to hear something.8 The beautiful is the poetic uttering of nature. Inversely, the audible voices of nature, her music, compel us
insofar as they seem to promise us unknown visions, unknown scenes of
It is not difcult for Venard to show, following Claudel and others, that the
Bible offers us in the most acute form imaginable instances of synaesthesic
reversal which always accompany moments of revelation. Likewise, as he
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On Thomistic Kabbalah 151

also shows, the Bible always thinks together the divine speaking through
nature and our own speaking immediately in response to this. For the Bible,
in fact, there is only a registering of the word of God because there is the
Bible, because there is this unique idiom of human response. Hence the
Bible cannot speak of God without speaking reexively of itself. The divine
glory is given together with human poesis.
This leads us to a fourth point of contrast with Balthasar. Once one has
adopted the poetic-mystagogic framework for theology (Catherine Pickstocks liturgical turn), Balthasars need for a trilogy becomes redundant.
Venard only needs one work (albeit in three volumes) concerning theological
poetics, because a poetics/aesthetics, unlike a pure aesthetics, is already
both a dramatics and a logic. How so? Well, rst of all, the inclusion of active
poetic response within aesthetics from the outset ensures that a synergic
drama between God and humanity, and in consequence a genuinely
interactive drama between human beings (which Balthasar perhaps too
mythically transfers to the divine-human plane), is invoked from its very
inception. Secondly, if glory is always logos, then it is impossible to speak of
beauty without also speaking of the articulations of reason as such.
In the end, of course, Balthasar has to reafrm such integration. Yet a
certain Bonaventuran tendency in his work to place the good, love and will
beyond knowledge is linked to a failure fully to grasp the site of the
integrating link of the true, good and beautiful. This link, as Venard suggests,
is surely language. It is because nature speaks, and speaks only in our
responding, that the manifestation of beauty, the ethical call of the other and
the question of truthful proportion between manifestation and manifested,
can arise. Hence Venard adds to Balthasar (drawing upon much critical
theory) a detailed consideration of the sign, the word and ctionarguing
that every manifest sign has a certain suppositional and so ctional aspect
to it.
Such an observation allows us to rethink Dominican intellectualism,
following the lead of Venard. The linguistic clenching of the unity of the
transcendentals of truth, goodness and beauty is supernaturally conrmed
for us in the revelation of the Trinity. There we can see that it is the divine
Word which beautifully manifests the truth of the Father and calls forth the
innite desire of the Spirit to know the Father through the Son, and thereby
to re-ignite (so to speak) the paternal power of generation, according to the
topos of perichoresis. Of course the Word is from the outset generated through
the out-breathing of Love. But since the imaging expression of the Father by
the Son is perfect, we cannot ever say that love is in excess of knowledge,
save in the paradoxical sense that innite knowledge might be in excess of
itself. The Son as Logos is a perfect terminus, yet an innite terminus can only
full desire by further inciting it.
Theological intellectualism, therefore, is a justied Logocentrism
in a Trinitarian capitalised (not a Derridean lower-case) sense. It is also a
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Christocentrism, since a true human response to God is only restored
through the Incarnation, whose truth can never be exceeded.
This rethinking is central to what is at issue in Venards rst volume,
Littrature et Thologie: Une saison en enfer. The tracing of the story equally of
modernity and modernism through nineteenth-century Parisian poetics
leads, as we have seen, to the point where Rimbaud tries to re-enchant the
world without God, and then abandons the project of re-enchantment altogether. But why should such a project have been thought necessary in the
rst place?
As Venard argues throughout his trilogy, following Foucault and others,
the coming-apart of language and reality amounts to a forgetting of
language to the extent that modernity tries to ignore the fact that real
things and ctional meanings only arise for us togetherotherwise
nothing would be manifest for us at all. It is a consistent and welcomely irenic
feature of his writing that Venard accordingly insists that ontology, phenomenology and hermeneutics are inseparable: being always discloses itself, but
only enigmatically. Hence it is the primacy of language which demands that
metaphysical speculation always be added to phenomenology (or rather is
always part of it), even though essences of things without appearances do
not exist and therefore are not available to us.
Mallarm and Rimbaud rst tried to heal the modern breach without
God. After Rimbaud realised that that project was impossible, his modern
urban hell pays negative testimony to the Catholic faith. The most it could
mean would be the demonic enchantment of nihilism which hovers uncannily close to Satanism. To be human means, after Bruno Latour, that natural
fetishes mysteriously speak in us, in excess of themselves.9 Yet there is no
unambiguous rational commensuration between signier and signied,
word and idea, concept and reality. Hence metaphysical realism is today
forced to rethink itself in terms of esoteric, magical links between these
levels of existence. The world has to be reenchanted in the name of its
presumed rationality.
It is here that Venard is exceptionally bold. Basically, he holds both to the
linguistic turn and to the linked inextricability of the ontological, the phenomenological and the semiotic as I have described. His case is that one can
take this turn either nihilistically or theologically. The uncontrollable excess
and uncertainty of meaning which the French early modernists rst intimated can either be read as the sign of ultimate unmeaning or of remote
participation in innite transcendent meaning. Likewise the inextricable link
of being, appearance and sign can be read as the sign of an ultimate a-causal
anarchy or else as the sign of our need to trust in a hidden network of
afnities that bridges the incommensurable and into which we have but
limited insight. This is why he correctly rejects the liberal Concilium-school
contention of the Saulchoir scion Jean-Pierre Jossua OP that literature is
somehow its own world, with its own values, standing apart from the Bible
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On Thomistic Kabbalah 153

and theology. For this can only imply a disingenuous dalliance with Roland
Barthess view that the experience of literature must be a jouissance free from
cognitive or axiomatic implications, that perversely foments the idea that
theology is scientically and positively immune to literary considerations
which it is held to transcend rather than to consummate.
Contrariwise, Venard insists that the non-nihilistic version of the linguistic
turn only makes sense in terms of Catholic theology and in terms of a construal of the linguistic turn which overthrows Saussure by insisting, after
Rimbaud and Claudel, on the importance of synaesthesia and onomatopoeia.
Remarkably, he is able to show that such conclusions are latent in the writings
of Thomas Aquinas.
In the rst volume of his trilogy, he paves the way for these arguments in
two ways. First of all, he shows, in great detail, how besides being a poet in
his hymnody, Aquinas was always a rhetorician in the composition of his
theological treatises. His ordering and use of words is an exercise in deliberate persuasion in which the appropriateness of the language is supposed to
match and reinforce the logical arguments, which so often depend upon an
appeal to appropriateness, or convenientia.
The idea of there being a poetic dimension in Aquinas can encounter two
resistances. First, ever since Ernst Robert Curtius put this view forward, it has
often been considered that the Franciscans tended to favour, while the
Dominicans tended to oppose, notions of poetic theology which approximated the pagan inspiration of the muses to the promptings of the Holy
Spirit. It has been accordingly assumed that the Franciscan favouring of
love and the will made it more disposed to grant the importance of poetry.
However, Curtius was extrapolating from one particular dispute which
involved a thirteenth-century Dominican opponent of this trend, Giovannino
of Mantua, and the defender of poetic theology, Albertino Mussato.10 And
since Curtiuss time, many have pointed out that Aquinas himself was
unusual amongst scholastics in giving a place, if a lowly one, to poetry in
the scale of knowledge. Although he described poetry as the least of all
the sciences (ST 1 q.1.a.9 obj. 1), this was already to remove it from mere
twinning with rhetoric as an art. Moreover, Aquinass insistence on
sensory mediation for knowledge meant that he thought that metaphoric
mediation of theological truth was essential, both necessary and useful (ad
3) even if one could rise from that plane to the more abstractly analogical. Yet
later, in the fteenth century, when early Thomistic revival itself contributed
to the work of Dominican humanists who praised the foresight of pagan
poetry, some advocates of the inspiration of the prisci poetae (following in
part Dionysiuss Proclean meditation on the greater closeness of grotesque,
inappropriate symbols to the ineffable) saw metaphoric symbolism as
irreplaceable even for the highest level of theology. (For, one might want to
ask Aquinas, is not God also eminently material rock as well as eminently
goodness, if he is the spiritual source of matter?)11
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Aquinass appreciation of the poetic in the broadest sense is also evidenced by the way, as Catherine Pickstock has shown, the entire Summa
builds up to a mystagogic exposition of the liturgy in which we are drawn at
last down from abstract reasonings towards a verbal invocation of the
sensory rhetoric that is indispensable for conveying to us the attractiveness, and therefore the truth, of the continuation of the Incarnation in the
miracle of transubstantiation.12
The second resistance would concern the stripped-down, minimalist character of Aquinass prose, as compared with the eforescence of Bonaventures
apparently more traditional and enchanted theological style. But to the
contrary, Venard makes a good case for a link between Aquinass laconism
and his continued attachment to enchantment. His very brevity tends to
point away from words towards things as the real created signs of God.
Moreover, his concision can serve to evoke mystery and a horizon of the
unsaid. Equally, as Venard also contends, there is a parallel between Thomass
metaphysical focus upon simplicity and his simple formalism of styleby
which his hymns prove to be capable of quite extraordinary, lapidary beauty.
The argument to a few concentrated words or phrases matches the desire
to point towards the simplicity of God and also to the relative simplicity
of substantive creatures, mysteriously composed of essence, existence and
sometimes intelligence. Here simple words are markers not for comprehensible atoms, as they would be for a nominalist, but rather for incomprehensible unities, blending the universal with the particular and universals with
individuality. As Venard shows, there is a triple isomorphism in Aquinas
between the composition of essence and existence in (relatively) simple substances, the logical-grammatical unity of signicatio and suppositio in predication, and a rhetorical style which constantly minimises our inevitable
prolixity of phrase in order to point to the substantive unity of what we must
necessarily separate out in thought.
Within this perspective Venard wants to radicalise some of the conclusions
of Marie-Dominique Chenu, the doyen of Le Saulchoir. What Venard seeks
to modify in Chenu is a faintly lingering neo-thomistic sense that Aquinas
rendered theology more scientic in a way that is somehow in continuity
with our modern ideas of exact, rigorous science.13
As Chenu explained, Aquinas taught that what revelation involves is a
heightened participatory access through simultaneous event and illuminated
interpretation of event to those inaccessible rst principles which are God
himself, such that sacra doctrina is in continuity with the mystical lumen dei
(S.T. I q.1 a.7 resp. and ad 1). Aquinass theory of quasi-subalternation in
this way takes Aristotles account of scientic foundations, which involves
the nesting of one science within another, back within the enchanted orbit
of participatory theories. For while subordinate sciences take their principles
from a higher science according to Aristotle, in the case of theology, argued
Thomas, this means that the human science of Godand all things under the
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aspect of Godtakes its principles (which are also its objectthereby, as
Chenu points out, disallowing any autonomous terrain for the subordinated
science, as in the normal Aristotelian scheme) not, as for Aristotle, from a
higher humanly-known science, but from the divine science which is the
knowledge that God has of himself (ST I q.1 a.2)
In this manner Aquinas much more rendered science as Augustinian
wisdom than he rendered wisdom as Aristotelian science. But in this context,
one can say both that Augustine is less dualistic about the relationship between
the discursive science of things of this world and intuitive wisdom concerning
God than Chenu supposed, and equally that Aquinas preserves more of a jolt
than he sometimes allows between the discursive consideration of nite
thingsthat remain for Thomas participative signs as well as causal effects
and the faint beginning of an intellectual intuition of the innite God (only
fully realised in the beatic vision). So theology as quasi-subalternate science
(quasi because not dealing with any object independent of Gods own
self-knowledge) which remains mystical wisdom, does not exactly have the
revolutionary seamless rigour which Chenus phraseology at times suggests.
This is especially the case when he speaks of the same principle of knowledge as supposedly applying for Aquinas to eternal matters on the one hand
and temporal matters on the other, as if no Augustinian transition from the
relatively discursive to the relatively intuitive were not still involved for
the Angelic doctor.14 Yet it must be, if, as Chenu allows, sacra doctrina is an
explication of the lumen dei and not a deductive exploration of certain
revealed data, assented-to for non-mystical, objective reasons.
As Venard points out, the principle of quasi-subalternation applies for
Aquinas to sacra scriptura as well as to sacra doctrinathe two are construed
as one seamless process of human reection. Moreover, as he also states,
Aquinas never abandons a traditional perspective upon Creation, according
to which it is the book of Gods natural utterances, which must be used to
interpret, and to be interpreted by, his book of supernatural utterances which
is the Bible. Aquinass interest in the natural world is correspondingly not to
do with its relative autonomy, but rather with a reinforced sense, as compared with Augustine, inuenced by a properly Proclean reading of Dionysius, of the hierarchical continuity of the entire natural-supernatural order.
This is best shown in the divine government sequence of the Prima Pars,
where Thomas moves seamlessly from angelology to human politics, cognition and pedagogy (qq 103119). Just as we cannot understand human affairs
without reference to angelic government, and cannot rightly order even
human political affairs without reference to (revealed) angelic example, so
also for Aquinas, as he afrms elsewhere, the Pope should enjoy a direct if
suasive plenitudo potestatis, because all of human nature is ordered to but
one supernatural end (De Regno, 2; ST II:II q. 60 a 6 ad 3). Likewise in Aquinas,
the idea that the very nite actuality of natural things is borrowed from God
prepares for the view that the highest and most essential thing within human
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existence, its orientation to the supernatural vision, is by the gift of grace. Nor
can the creation be ordered for Aquinas without the presence within it of
angelic and human mind. And in the case of both humans and angels, even
the natural functions of mind cannot be carried out with a genuinely right
ordering if the supernatural ordering of charity is not present.15
This sometimes concealed integralism within Aquinas concurs with his
Logocentrism and Christocentrism already alluded to. It is reason as
illumining, reason as the uttered word shining forth, which tends to unite
the perspectives of nature and grace. Hence for him the Fathers understanding only exists and is only realised in the uttered Logos and Spiritual desire is
the excessive consequence of this understandingin either case according to
the logic of substantive relations. Equally, the divine decision to create, along
with all the eminent reality of the creation, is included within the Logos, while
our natural minds are illumined by participation in the Logos and the incarnation of the Logos restores the possibility of our perfect participation in the
same which was once lost by Adam.16
This participatory perspective is conrmed in Thomass Christology by a
highly Cyrilline and Maximian colouring which involves a strong doctrine of
the communicatio idiomatum. Hence the restoration of human nature in Christ
involves for Aquinas the raising of this nature into personal, existential (there
is only one divine esse in Christ in the Tertia Pars) and capacious (the impersonated human nature can be said to create etc.) unity with the Godhead. The
refusal of all vestigial Nestorianism implies therefore the impossibility of
any discrete natura pura. But equivalently, the divine taking-on of human
attributes (such that the divine Son can be said to suffer and die) by the divine
nature, suggests the extreme dignity and capacity to be ennobled of the
natural order. Aquinass perspective is Greek here in the sense of Byzantine rather than ancient pagan or proto-scientic.17
The conjoined classicism of Aquinass Dionysian account of hierarchy,
Augustinian account of the Trinity, and Byzantine account of Christology,
suggests an heuristic perspective for reading his entire oeuvre which belies
any leanings towards a modern autonomy of the natural order, while it
remains compatible with a modern empirical exploration of the same.
Moreover, Aquinass insistence that the singularity of Christs humanity is
entirely the result of his impersonation by the divine Son and existentialisation by the divine esse, ensures that individuation is here participatory and
relational. Thereby, the absolute irreplacable value of Christs humanity can
entirely coincide with the universality of his divinity. Here one can recognise
a Dominican humanism that remains fully within a traditional participatory,
enchanted perspective. This proto-modernism remained faithful to the
Christian order it had inherited in the only authentic way possible: namely
by trying to repeat this order in a different re-ordering. In doing so it preinvented many idioms and emphases that we should now consider to be
Renaissance in character.
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3. In Toulouse
In the rst volume of his trilogy, Littrature et Thologie, Venard distinguishes
four stages in the modern recovery of the exemplary thought of Thomas
Aquinas. The rst is the nineteenth-century neoscholastic revival, which
reacted against idealism, but failed to separate Aquinas from Baroque scholastic recensions which were themselves partly responsible for the modernism
which this revival sought to resist. The second is the twentieth-century recovery of a more historically authentic Aquinas by Maritain, Gilson and Chenu,
supplemented by the work of later writers who arrived at a better grasp of the
neoplatonic element in his thought: Geiger, Fabro, Finance (besides Grabmann
earlier and, more recently, ORourke and te Velde). The third he identies as a
new grasp of an understanding of historicity internal to Aquinass texts, which
goes along with a stronger emphasis on Aquinas as theologian and Aquinas
as Biblical commentatorhe mentions O.-H. Pesch and one could add
Serge-Thomas Bonino and others in his own Toulouse school.
The fourth stage in Thomistic studies distinguished by Venard is the appreciation of Aquinas as a writerallied to an understanding of his spirituality.
This stage, as Venard acknowledges, has been inaugurated by the work of
Jean-Pierre Torrell.
It is this phase which Venard himself is trying further to develop. The
discussions of Aquinass poetry and rhetoric in the rst volume are but
preparatory to a discussion of Aquinass explicit and implicit theory of
language and theory of sacred scripture as language in the second and third
volumes respectively. The technicality and relation to modern critical considerations of these discussions exceeds the perspectives of Torrell himself.
The second volume, La Langue de lineffable, has to make good its subtitle:
Essai sur le fondement thologique de la mtaphysique.
Venards argument cleaves close to the one that Catherine Pickstock and
I advanced in Truth in Aquinas. All of Aquinass causal arguments for and
concerning God within his metaphysics depend upon the theoretical
priority of his discourse of naming God (analogy) as derived from
Dionysius and supplemented by an Augustinian discourse of the participation of human words in the divine Word which is the second person of the
Trinity. This priority does not mean merely that we rst of all must be able to
invoke God by name in order to be able to ascribe causality to him. It is rather
that our very ability to name God invokes already a certain latent ontology
which is entirely an ontology of the signan ontosemiology if you like,
because the divine names are also created realities. It is for this reason that,
since all speech about God is analogical, all talk about divine causality must
also be in analogical terms. But analogical discourse permits only approximate, speculative inference according to Aquinas after Aristotle: strict proof
naturally requires entirely stable, univocal terms of argument. (This is the
point where Baroque natural theology is cornered.)
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But inversely, Aquinas does not take the names of God to be simply things
positively revealed to us, so assuring us of divine existence. Instead, he
provides us with no protocol to clarify whether the discourse of the divine
names belongs properly to philosophical theology on the one hand or to sacra
doctrina on the other. Accordingly, one must assume that it is the precondition
for both. But this means that the names of God are the names revealed to us
by the Bible and yet at the same time the names shown to us through the
natural realities to which words refer. One has to relate this to the view,
already mentioned, that the book of the scriptures and the book of nature are
mutually illuminating. Only nature shows us examples of the kind of thing
that the Bible talks about, but only the Bible tells us how more fully to read
these thingswhy they are there, what they are for, to what ends they will
nally arrive. So when Aquinas speaks in the Prima Pars of the names of
God he alludes both to natural and to revealed signs: to the former as
heightened and claried by the latter and to the latter as always requiring the
mediation of the former. It is just for this reason that Aquinas provides us
with an ontosemiosis: to receive the names of God is to grasp that God is
eternally the God who speaks (in other words, the Triune Godthat perception has to be at least latent) but who also speaks approximately through
natural signs that are emanations from his requisite plenitude, limited
expressions of his inexhaustibility. In other words, analogical speech about
God is inseparable from the ascription to being of a participatory structure.
This speaking of God, is, properly speaking, the most certain thing in
reality. To hear it properly we must intuitively intimate this certitudehave
a certain foretaste of it as Aquinas already says in the Summa contra Gentiles
(SCG IV 54 [4]; ST I q.1 a.2). But that is impossible for fallen human beings,
who have sensually betrayed the primacy of the intellect and so lost the
fullness of their natural capacity for intellectual intuition. God overcomes this
impasse by conveniently working with our inversion and rendering himself
coincident, in the Incarnation, with the perverse greater certainty of our
intuition through the senses. In this way, for Aquinas as for Dionysius (as
J. M. Schoot argues),18 the entire discourse about divine naming depends
upon our acceptance that Christ is the prime name for God, since without
this recognition the discourse is mired in pagan speculative uncertainty.
To recapitulate: causal discourse concerning God, presumes, for Aquinas,
symbolic-participatory discourse concerning God. Unless, in phenomenological terms, we read creatures as obscure signs, we would not be led to
search for their causal origins. Indeed, unless we read them as signs, we
would have no cognitive, as opposed to a purely instinctive, relationship
with them at all. Semiosis must go before both our natural and our theological
Furthermore, Aquinas never considers any divine names that are not
also revealed names. The reason for this, Venard suggests, is that the
broadest theological context, the biggest presupposition for his writing, is
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the thought of Adam in the earthly paradise, integrally possessed of a perfect
human nature because possessed of a perfect supernatural orientation to the
beatic vision which permitted him already to know perfectly all things. This
context is equally, one might add, the thought of creation and humanity
restored, not to the forever tragically lost Eden, but to the resumed nal
destiny of Adam possessed of a spiritual body, seeing God face-to-face
amongst the angels. In either case, the additional presupposition of fallen man
plus the remedy of grace is not only sadder but entirely secondary in character.
Venard contends that it is only within the context of this secondary
presupposition that one must distinguish not just formally, but also for
substantive reasons which are however strictly historical reasons (here
Thomass historicism is apparent), a natural from a supernatural
knowledge. Unfallen man passed seamlessly from one to the other without a
break. But the imperfection of fallen mans understanding consists in an
impaired nature that is one and the same with his loss of a clear supernatural
orientation. The perceived gap between the two knowledges is nothing
other than awareness of the sinful attempt to achieve the autonomy of nature!
And any even partial integrity that remains to human nature is entirely to
do with the unshakable persistence of an obscure natural ontological lure
towards the supernatural which Aquinas teaches to be constitutive of spiritual, intellectual being as suchindeed he implies, if one reads him carefully,
that this lure is identical with the reexive and aware heightening (in spiritual
creatures) of the natural orientation of every created being towards God.
Humans return with conscious desire to an eventually conscious unionjust
as all creatures return after their own mode and idiom.
Does this deny the additional gratuity of grace compared to the initial
gratuity of creation? Not at all: because an intellectual giving of a share in the
divine spirit to created spirit and as spirit (grace or better, deication) is
the greater and more primary gift as compared with the mere gift of being
just as God is more primarily intelligere than he is esse, since he must be
throughout being in the very highest mode of being. And intelligence
here includes speaking. To put this all in more Venard-like terms, the God
who speaks the creation speaks it more primarily as the hearing and responsive speaking of wordsby supernaturally-orientated, grace-imbued angels
and human beingsthan he does by the mere speaking of inert signs themselves (merely created things).19
The Divine Names of the Prima Pars, therefore, which provide the (ontological and epistemological) pre-condition for writing the Summa at all,
reect the hierarchic seamlessness of both unfallen and redeemed humanity,
in line with the Proclean ontology that Dionysius himself articulated. This is
the reason for the apparent secondariness of the historical drama within this
Dionysian-Thomist discourse. However, the historical arrival of the name of
Christ as rendering again possible for fallen man a partial invocation of this
ahistorical theophanic schema is also entirely presumed. The human naming
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of God began even amongst the naturally conned pagans because all
human language guratively anticipates this name; otherwise, there would
be only Babel and no human meaning whatsoever. The names of Question 13
are in consequence at once revealed and natural and entirely Christocentric.
This means, then, that metaphysics is founded by theology as precisely
theo-logy. In the rst book of the trilogy, Venard argued, as we saw, that the
primacy of language ensures that metaphysical speculation must supplement
phenomenology. Now, however, he argues that such necessary speculation is
only secured as other than nihilistic when the metaphysical is opened up by
the theological. Signs lead us phenomenologically to the ultimate speaker
through the arrival of this speaker once in time. Then we proceed metaphysically to elaborate the participatory ontological structure that this experience presumes.
There is so far, however, a missing link in our understanding of the theological linguistic foundationan aspect of this foundation which must also
call forth a further metaphysical elaboration. And this is the Augustinian
aspect which concerns the relationship of human words to the divine Word.
If the context of the Dionysian invocation of names is really mystagogictheurgic, then one can read this Augustinian aspect as a more reexive
elaboration of that dimension of the divine names which concerns precisely
our act of namingthe more poetic-theurgic aspect, in other words, which is
Venards prime concern throughout.
The name of Christ discloses to us the eternal Logos within the Trinity. This
name is itself mediated to us through the Churchs liturgy, teaching and
practices which all occupy the space of meaning opened out for us by the
Churchs scriptures. We can have no Protestant relationship to Jesus which
the ecclesial hierarchy and sacraments of the Church merely exist instrumentally to promote, even though there is an innite excess of Christs personhood over these structures, since there is an innite excess of the Godhead
over these structures. For this reason, the mediated Word of God, which is (as
Venard argues) the precondition of metaphysics, is conveyed to us through
the re-presentation of Christ in the Biblical word and in the Eucharist. This is
the concern of his third volume, Sacra Pagina.20
Already, however, in Le Langue de lineffable, Venard concludes that what
was lost by Adam was his true response of praise to the revelation of God in
the signs of creation. Language is a human practice and yet there is, as Ernest
Renan concluded after Louis de Bonald, no humanity without language.21
Therefore, for humanity to lose the true language of praise was to distort its
human existence through a distortion of language as such. The search for a
true making of wordspoesisis one and the same with the quest for human
restoration. Yet since, as Rimbaud came to see, this cannot be undertaken
in words that are dened by their loss of the key to true making, language
has to descend again as a divine gift, albeit as a synergic gift which is
simultaneously a pre-given divine deed and a self-given human deed. It has
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to arrive again as the divine-human speaker who is Christ. Christ is redemptive only through the restoration of language. But this means that (as Venard
goes onto to say in Sacra Pagina) that a certain reverse causality is at work
as between Christ and scripture, as it is between the Father and the Son in the
Trinity. The Son is only fully incarnate insofar as he is also inverbate: insofar
as he leaves a trace of himself in the words of scripture which are articulated
as liturgical offerings by other human beings. Hence the very Christocentricity of the Bible ensures that it can only be taken as revelation because it is,
in every sense (as Coleridge suggested) the truest poesis, the beginning of
the restoration of the lost language of Adam, capable of commanding the
beasts and distilling every essential secret of nature. (Is the technologism of
the Christian West at once the indication and the perverse parody of this
In a certain sense, Venard implies, the Bible presents us with language as
such because it presents us with ction as such. Language is in fact more
primarily literature than it is language, for two reasons. First, there is no
grammatical articulation of language without grammatical subjects and
objects. But language could not be spoken, could not be written, if there did
not exist also extra-linguistic subjects and objectsto deny this would not be
to remain true to the linguistic turn, but would rather twist this turn towards
a delirious abolition of language into a sentence-less babble with no speakers,
no things spoken of and therefore no grammar because no plot. The enunciated subject of the sentence therefore implies also the the subject of
enunciation in psychic-physical existence. Inversely, though, as Bonald and
Renan saw, the subject of enunciation is only reexively constituted as the
grammatical enunciated subject of the sentence. In the rst place language
makes sense by being referred to real life content that is also conventionally
structured in terms of extra-linguistic gures as Louis Hjelmslev suggested. (He is here echoed by the French Dominican Franois Martin, whose
work on the Bible and language is crucial for Venards own.)22 However, this
gural content is itself inseparable from, even though it exceeds, the grammatical space of the signied, itself materially conveyed to us by the signier.
It follows that language, whose crucial unit is the sentence, is not articulated
as subject and object because it refers to entirely extra-linguistic instantiations
of the same. Rather, language is articulated as subject and object because it is
concerned with the extra-linguistic reality of these two poles in such a way
that this extra extraordinarily invades the very heart of language itself,
while inversely, human language leaks beyond itself into a physical reality
which is by no means merely naturally given even as physical, but already
conceived by us in terms of visual, aural, olfactory, gustatory and tactile
codings (the gural). This simultaneous double alienation ensures that all
language is ctionthat literature is not written in words, but that words
are doomed always to compose literature. For the real subjects and objects,
which alone allow language to exist and to be dynamically articulated, must
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themselves be linguistically imagined. So the grammatical subject involves a
real historical but then a ctional subject; the grammatical object involves
a historical but then a ctional object.
Secondly, language is within literature because, as Venard argues, all of
existence must be phenomenally manifest. And the manifest occupies a space
that exceeds the contrast between the proper and the metaphorical. It both
is and is not that which it manifeststhe phenomenological both is and is
not the ontological. The tree is only all that successively appears and yet its
innate energy, its substantial remaining, its essential coherence, is not just
that. Since, as we have now seen, it is the ctional which mediates the real
and the linguistic, we can also say that the world as such exists and only
exists as telling its own story. And this story is at once true and not the whole
truth and sometimes, of course, like reections of clouds in puddles, but
illusorily true (as so much dismayed the ancient Greek philosophers and
prompted much of their thinking). Venard further suggests that this manifestness of everything, which was frequently invoked by the scholastics,
including Aquinas, is the natural ground of intentionalitysince everything
has to show itself in order to be, all showings also point to something other
than themselves.
But in this light we can see that the ctionality of real subjects and objects
indicates something other than scepticism or cultural relativism. Instead,
the constant weaving between being and meaning which this ctionality
involves is commenced within pre-human, pre-animal and even pre-organic
reality. Nature has already started to gure itself in shapes and sounds and
colours because it is proto-linguistic. Our further human artistic gurations
of nature are a middle ground between our sensory existence and language,
while amongst the ne arts the synaesthesic art of poetrywhich is nothing
other than language itself as Literatureis supplemented by more intense
explorations of the less explicit and more ineffable language of just one sense
alone, as in music, painting, olfaction, cuisine and the erotic arts of touch.
If language lies within literature, then it becomes more conceivable that a
canonical set of works of literature, the Bible, should re-reveal to us language
as such, the lost universal human tongue, once further undone, beyond Eden,
by human pride in searching to aspire towards the tongues of angels without
divine assistance.
Following Franois Martin, Venard divines signs of this in the peculiar
character of the Bible as a work without an author. Obviously, its multiauthored polyphony renders this true in the banal sense that the Bible was
later assembled as a canon and so indeed is not the work of one man (as the
Koran is claimed to be, or rather of one human mediator). But this becomes
less banal when one considers that the Bible is held to cohere as the work of
one divine author, so that without this inexhaustible divine sense (and the
constant proving of that coherence and inexhaustibility in every liturgical
or meditative performance) the Bible is not a coherent or a profound work.
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And it becomes less banal still when one considers that the Bible, as Martin
argues, is not so much about human subjects as it is about the very constitution of human subjectivity in the rst place through the placing of human
beings within language as the true original language which is the divine
tongue as economically mediated to the creation. The Bible as the book is the
book that contains the very root of all human language, not just a book written
within human language. For if language as such is literature, then all language
is but a fragment of the hidden transcendental book for which Mallarm
quested. But if we receive it, then the Bible is this book, or rather this book
made vellum, since it is also a continuation of the Logos made esh.
In Sacra Pagina, the third volume, Venard argues, again following Martin
and others, that regarding the Bible in this light can help us to see how it is
not in any way a pre-philosophical work conned to the narrative and symbolic order
of rst-order discourse. To the contrary, as Romantics like Coleridge and
Novalis had started to see, it is yet more reexive than philosophy, because it
has realised that the dependence of thought upon language, which is a
dependence upon literature, forbids a full grasp of truth as representation of
a pre-linguistic reality. Instead, our only hope of even approaching such a
grasp lies in a correct linguistic performance which would also be a correct
human self-narrationa true ction, Vicos vera narratio. Such a performance would be philosophical to the extent that it would have to be
self-conscious in order to be phenomenological and not automatic. Thus
the uttering of true words about God would also be the recollected story of
this uttering and this would necessarily contain a narrative meditation, as
part of the performance itself, of the divine-human conditions of ontological
possibility for such a performance. But much of the Pentateuch, especially the
book of Exodus, is concerned with just such a narration.
Venard suggests that this involves a certain tautologous element
throughout the Bible. The Bible speaks always of God and of the divine Word,
but only through speaking also of its own synergic natural and human word.
This tautology of language, in the opinion of Venard, is reversely linked to
the fact that once language has been properly restored as revealed literature
(the Bible), then we see that a true speaking speaks of One God, whose own
speech is single. In other words, monotheism also is tautologous, as the
enigmatic I am who I am statement of Exodus reveals. In fact, as Venard also
argues, this statement discloses that the God who is esse ipsum is also the God
who speaks himself as himself. In this way, the surpassing of philosophy by
theo-logy is conrmed also at the level of theology proper, the nature of the
Godhead itself. And a certain symmetry between the testaments concerning
metaphysics becomes observable. In the New Testament the Logos incarnate
identies himself with the divine existentiality of the I AM. In the Old
Testament the announcement that God is esse ipsum, as Dominique Dubarle
OP once pointed out,23 also suggests that God is tautologous repetition as
language, which is the foundation of his inner repletion of action besides his
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external activity. Hence this announcement anticipates the full revelation of
the triune God.
Venard is here deliberately revisiting the Gilsonian theme of a metaphysics of Exodus which was seen as the foundation for a project of Christian
philosophy. This metaphysics of esse, Venard argues, must be seen equally as
a metaphysics of the spoken Logos. One can add that, since esse is transgeneric, its ultimacy undoes the security of any ontological frame in the normal
Aristotelian sense, which depends upon the primacy of the most universal
and stable, and its subdivision into subordinate categories.24 As transgeneric,
esse is as fullled in accident as in substance and indeed its actualisation of
form, which (as Gilson already saw) trumps the information of matter by
form, ensures that the coming to be of stable ontological structures in general
has the character of event, while the retained primacy of esse also ensures
that an event can exceed in import the general ontological framework into
which it is inserted.25
And here is the most radical reason why one can disinter a latent historicist dimension within Aquinas. This dimension is most apparent in his
Christology, where esse as such existentialises the human and divine essences
of Christ, just as the person of the Son impersonates (enhypostasises) them.
(If Thomass late tractate, De Verbo Incarnatione speaks, in apparent contradiction to the Summa, of a human being in Christ, then this must be understood, as Aaron Riches argues, merely in the sense that human essence
cannot be understood without a certain existential reference; it need not be
taken as implying an existence in addition to that of God, since no existence
could possibly be added to esse ipsum.)26 Christ as esse incarnate exceeds all of
that nite reality within which he is apparently located, just as the end of
Johns gospel (often invoked by Venard) says that the world could not contain
all the books that might be written about Jesus.
It follows that the Thomistic doctrines of the esse ipsum and the real distinction actually fracture the bounds of metaphysics, not only because they
assume the doctrine of Creation, but also because they imply a primacy of
event and deed which is fully disclosed in the Incarnation. And the manifestness of event is, as we have seen, inseparable from the phenomenon of
language. The metaphysics of Exodus is also the metaphysics of in principio
erat verbum. In God also the making of truth, his self-performance, is
transcendentally prior to his contemplative self-knowledge or rather is identical with its instance. Metaphysics commences as literature also for God.
In La Langue de lineffable, Venard attempts to mediate between Etienne
Gilson and Jacques Maritain as the main rst retrievers of a more authentic
Aquinas, who also tried to rethink his philosophy for the twentieth century.
And the reworked Exodus metaphysics provides him with the main point of
linkage. For the two authors in effect selected alternate emphases on the two
main themes of Thomass early metaphysical treatise, De Ente et Essentia.
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On Thomistic Kabbalah 165

ing this to Heideggers rediscovery of the ontological difference and thereby
denying, against Heidegger, that Aquinas was an exponent of ontotheology.
But Maritain stressed that Aquinas had not only really distinguished esse
from essentia but also distinguished nite substantial esse from esse intellectuale or esse intentionale, the being of the reasoning of spiritual creatures which
is fully real, though not in a substantive sense, as it depends upon its residing
within substantive creatureswhether it coincides with this substantiality,
as with angels (who remain nonetheless composed of esse and essentia), or is
added to the soul of embodied substance as a contingent, and properly
accidental power, as in the case of human beings.
Maritain, who proclaimed himself also to be a cyclopean Thomist xated
with a gimlet-eye upon being, proposed an additional gloss upon the real
distinction, which did not, ostensibly, nd favour with Gilson. This was the
idea that we have a kind of direct intuition of being in its difference from
One can say that Gilson had the better grasp of the ontological dimension
in Aquinas, in terms of the absolute distinction of the ontological from the
ontic, whereas Maritain was more aware of the intellectual-linguistic dimension in his writing, while also trying to supplement Thomass ontology with
a more phenomenological aspect.
Venard attempts a kind of synthesis, based upon the idea already alluded
to that it is precisely language that mediates the phenomenological with the
metaphysical. Nevertheless, he seems rather oddly to draw back from the
thesis of an intuition of being (with which one can argue that Gilson in any
case more or less agreed in the end). He suggests that in the face of a
forgetfulness of being in the current era, such a doctrine is heuristically
useful, but in the more absolute sense must be counted untrue, since the fact
of being is something of which we can become speculatively aware, but is
not a mystery into which we can enjoy any degree of intuitive insight.
However, Heidegger himself makes the registration of being a phenomenological matter: being is not simply something which we infer when we realise
that any given thing might or might not exist and therefore does not
command its own existence. Prior to that, we only register existence by an
oblique but constant registering of being as a kind of medium in which all
things swim in practical terms, just as we physically see all things within
pervasive light, which we see everywhere but only indirectly, since it is
that very thing by which we see. In parallel, we know things because we
are in existence and register things as subsisting in the light of being. But
Heidegger dogmatically hypostasised this experience of a pervasive presence
of absence, thereby converting a problematic appearance into a covert metaphysics by suppressing his dogmatic espousal of a specic verbal and poetic
interpretation: being as the nullifying of the nothing and so forth. It remains
open to us, alternatively, to read the oblique intuition of being in terms of
existence as a gift from a hyper-plenitude of innite presence.
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This is the Thomistic option. But to argue, with Gilson in his earlier writings, that this is but a speculative matter would seem to commit the opposite
dogmatism to that of Heidegger. If the difference of esse is just inferred by
us as an inert fact, then nothing favours the Thomistic explication of this
fact more than the Heideggerean nihilistic explication of the same. (And
indeed one would have to accept Scotuss univocal understanding of being as
mere double negation: is is not is not.)27 Precisely because the ascent to
God is rst of all a matter of names and participation before it is a matter of
invoking causal efciency, the experience of being involves an intuitive
recognition that being is a gift remotely signed by the giver, and that being as
such is convertible with the seven other medieval transcendentals: unity,
truth, goodness, beauty, thingness and somethingness (quid and aliquid).
It would, then, actually make far more sense of Venards own brilliantly
original schema were he more boldly to afrm the Maritainian intuition of
being in his own distinctive mode. Then one could say, in keeping with
Aquinas, that the highest aspect of the human mind as intellectus obscurely
participates in our nal beatied intuition of God to the degree that, with the
help of revealed words, it reads the phenomenon of ens commune as the sign
of a sharing in esse ipsum, rendering being itself a gift of love.
4. Thomistic Linguistics
Venard endeavours to articulate such a metaphysics through a reading of
Aquinass doctrine of the inner word. This doctrine reveals perhaps the most
startling instance of Aquinass reworking of our natural understanding in the
light of revelation. Into the Aristotelian account of knowledge by species, he
notoriously intrudes the Augustinian verbum. Some commentators have suggested in consequence that this is an entirely theological doctrine, whereby
Aquinas simply reads actualised species symbolically as verbum in order to
suggest an analogue that has a merely theological valency. They argue this
from the apparent absence of the verbum from the main sequence of questions
(7989) on human cognition in the Prima Pars. However, as so often in
Aquinas, he is not offering a complete treatise here, but dealing with a
specic set of issues to which the verbum doctrine is not so relevant. In any
case, he clearly alluded to this doctrine at one point, though not by name, in
the course of arguing that it is objects themselves and not the species which is
their likeness which is the thing understood: [external] Words do not
therefore signify the intelligible species themselves; but that which the intellect forms for itself for the purpose of judging of external things (ST 1 q. 85
a2. ad 3). So between the actualised species and the external things understood, arises a further instrument: the verbum mentis.
Why should Aquinas have indulged in this apparent excess of heuristic
apparatus, apart from motives of pietas towards Augustine? The answer
cannot quite be, as Venard suggests, that it is in order to account for the fact
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that we can continue to know things in their absence and can abstract from
the concrete instance of things. Actualised species alone might adequately
carry out both those jobs. Rather, in a manner that actually much more helps
to build-up Venards own fundamental thesis, the verbum mentis, after Augustine, adds, in the rst place, to the idea of an active reexive grasp of the
passively-received species by praxis (intransitive activity), the notion of a more
self-expressive and inventive moment in understanding by poesis (transitive
activity). Here, following Yves Floucat, Venard is over-resistant to the idea
that the verbum is an internal production, fearing that this would compromise its pure relationality. But the generation of the Logos in God is a
sheerly relational internal production, and Aquinas himself speaks of human
understanding as involving the purest degree of emanationthe instance
where an emanation does not depart externally from its source (SCG IV, 11).
Hence, as in the passage just cited, Aquinas associated the inner word with
the act of judgement whereby the mind does not just consciously and
actively reect external being back to itself but also mentally re-creates
such being by judging its disposition and its worth.
Venard himself has uniquely (as far as I know) called attention to a remarkable passage in the Prima Pars where Aquinas radically associates the verbum
mentis with human creativity. Dealing with the question of whether the
divine act of creation is possible without change and without movement,
Aquinas writes:
In things which are made without movement, to become and to be
already made are simultaneous, whether such making is the term of
movement, as illumination (for a thing is being illuminated and is illuminated at the same time) or whether it is not the term of movement, as
the word is being made in the mind and is made at the same time. In
these things what is being made, is: but when we speak of its being made,
we mean that it is from another, and was not previously. Hence since
creation is without movement, a thing is being created and is already
created at the same time. (ST I q. 45 a2. ad 3)
What this passage unusually shows is that, although Aquinas thought that
nite things cannot create ex nihilo and cannot even offer any assistance
in creating, they nonetheless do participate in such creation insofar as they
generate a transition to radical if not absolute novelty. Hence all light is
propagated creatively, since its action is immediate. The latter circumstance
holds precisely because light as shed does not shape a pre-existing form or
matter but rather emanates an unprecedented power of formation (this is
why Aquinas takes light to be so original in the process of creation in
Genesis, even if he did not, like Robert Grosseteste and others, formulate a
fully-edged metaphysics of light). It is also legitimate to take illumination
here as extending also to intellectual illumination, since, for Aquinass
hierarchical outlook, the latter is still more properly clarication than it is
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physical light. This movement of illumination would reach its terminus in the
thing known. In any case, Aquinas then goes on to mention also the inner
word as the middle term of such intellectual illumination, since this word
is in some sense transitional and instrumental in relation to the attainment of
understanding. The generation of this word, like that of physical light, is
immediate and without sequential transition.
Hence Aquinas implies that our internally linguistic understanding participates, along with physical light, in the immediacy of creation ex nihilo which
establishes something absolutely original. Our understanding, it follows,
establishes something by comparison relatively new, and yet radically new.
Our act of judgement is an event, which, as Louis Lachance OP (cited by
Venard) argued, inserts something drastically novel within being.28 Intelligence is poetic, and if the beings of reason spoken of in De Ente et Essentia
do not attain ontic equality with materially subsistent things, then they
exceed as unprecedented events the categorially xed framework of the nite
ontic realm.
This faint but crucial adumbration of homo creator in Aquinas is further
evidence for taking him as an early Renaissance thinker, concerned with
poesis, as well as a Late-High Medieval thinker concerned with the structure
of being.
But not merely must one understand this passage as saying that human
understanding shares in creation ex nihilo; one must also take it as saying that
the immediate emanation of the inner word participatively echoes the
generation of the Verbum in the Trinity, within which generation, according to
Aquinas, the decision to create and the eminent reality of all created things is
eternally included. In terms of this analogy, Aquinas understands all thought
to be linguistic in at least three crucial senses. First, he is thinking of the
way in which thought is developed discursively, drawing out conclusions
from principles like the unravelling of sentences. Bernard Lonergan thought
that this was the sole crucial analogue; but this will not explain why the
verbum is also present for Aquinas in intuitive conclusions, and in the thought
of angels which is, for him, entirely intuitive (ST I q. 107). The intuitive
instance indicates a second crucial sense of the linguisticality of thought
which is to do with thought as a creative/recreative existential event, in the
fashion already seen. Our participation in the Trinity reveals that our esse
intellectuale is higher in its reach of indication than is substantive being (when
material) in which it is decient, since God and the angels are subsistent
simply by virtue of their verbal intellection.
The third sense in which thought is linguistic coincides with a second
Augustinian reason for the addition of verbum to species. This concerns not
the expressive relation of concept to thought, but the signifying relation
of concept to thing known, whereby the verbum mentis is not just the word
of the mind but also the word of the res which it intends. As Venard says,
Aquinas gradually adds layer upon conceptual layer in this respect. In his
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Sentence Commentary he argues that just as there is a persisting model in the
mind for the artists production, so there is a model in the mind for our
theoretical grasp of something external (though this point may seem at rst
blush obscure). In the De Veritate he explains that the verbum mentis as
intentional applies both to the pre-modelling of practical reason and the
pre-modelling of theoretical reason. In the Summa Contra Gentiles he begins to
say that both practical and theoretical thought concludes with the birth of
the verbum, rendering it in some way a kind of shadowed tracking of the entire
external production of an action or of a realised intentional reach. This model alone
permits the analogue to the Trinitarian generation.
However, as Venard indicates, the most difcult crux in grasping Aquinass
theory of the verbum lies in understanding how sometimes he seems to
consider it as a terminus, and at other times as an instrument, as in the
passage recently cited. Venard tends, following Floucat and Lonergan, to
favour the former option. He does so on the grounds of the Trinitarian
analogy and on the imperative to see the inner word as inward art (the Ars
Patris in both Bonaventure and Aquinas) and no longer simply as the model
for art. In this way it is more than just an instrumental sign, whereas the
latter would suggest both an instrumental theory of language in general and
a subordination of the species-become-inner word to a mere representation
of external reality.
In keeping with this preference, Venard also reads the analogy between our
mind/our word and the divine mind/divine word in terms of an isomorphism of comparative ratios, in line with the analogy of proportionality,
involving parallel formalities, rather than the analogy of attribution that
invokes also an ascent based upon a reverse tracking of efcient causation.
This has the advantage for him of insisting on the horizontality of the human
word as issuing in actual language, spoken and written along the course of
time, just as the divine speech is uttered within the horizon of the eternal. In
the same way that the verbum as terminus does not need to reach beyond itself
outwards, so also (especially with the benet of revelation) it does not need to
reach beyond itself upwards. This (as we shall shortly see) partial refusal of
Maritain with respect to esse intentionale would seem to concur with Venards
equal restriction of Maritain with respect to the intuition of being. For in either
case he is preferring a speculative agnosticism as to axiomatic content over
an attributive, phenomenological ascent to God, the source of all value. But
on my view, expanding on Venard, the verbum mentis should be seen as both a
terminus and an instrument. It is a terminus because it is not a representative
mirror but inward ars. However, were it only a terminus, then one would not
need to add it to species, because the latter is, indeed, in Aristotles thought
entirely a terminusforms are realised more actually and excellently in the
mind. By contrast the Christian aspect of Aquinass thought on cognition
involves a greater metaphysical realism, as compared with Aristotle, and this
greater realism involves a curious circularity.
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Abstracted thought, when completed, returns to the imagination (conversio ad phantasmata) and this crucially includes the fantastic elaboration of
the verbum cordis which is the imaginative pre-forming or echoing in the
mind of actually uttered words: the vocal sound proceeds from the signication of the imagination and this, according to Aquinas, was identied by
John Damascene as the word . . . uttered in the heart (ST I q. 34 a.1 resp.).
Venard himself, with great acuity, sees that herein may lie the possibility of
making the claim that Aquinas embarks upon a latent yet denite linguistic
turn. For if we only complete the concept, the mental word, by returning
both to sensory images and to sensory (pre)echoes of words, then it might
seem that actual utterance is part of one seamless mental generation. Indeed
Aquinas notably says that, according to Damascene, the spoken word is called
the natural movement of the intellect, whereby it is moved, and understands, and
thinks, as light and splendour.
This is actually quite astonishing. For here Aquinas, in a notably Byzantine
moment, appears fully to allow that bodily exteriority, in this case symbolic
utterance, is involved in our reception of the divine light. This is conrmed
by another remarkable passage from the Tertia Pars where, signicantly, the
comparison of human language is to the assumption of human esh by the
divine Logos in the incarnation, not to the latters Trinitarian generation. As
Christs human nature is to the Logos, so our external speaking is to our inner
speaking. The immediate question at issue is whether the human nature of
Christ was assumed merely though grace. The answer, of course, is no, but
Aquinas deals with the objection that, if the Word as incarnate is like our
spoken word and our spoken word is uttered by breathing, then, since the
Holy Spirit is the divine breath, it would seem that it is the Spirit which links
the humanity of Jesus to his divinity through his gift of grace. Aquinas replies
Our word is united to our speech by means of breathing (spiritus), not as
a formal medium, but as a moving medium. For from the word conceived within, the breathing proceeds, from which the speech is formed.
And similarly from the eternal Word proceeds the Holy Spirit, who
formed the body of Christ. . . . But it does not follow from this that the
grace of the Holy Spirit is the formal medium in the aforesaid union. (ST
III q.6 a.6 ad 3)
From this highly complex conjunction of Trinitarian and Incarnational
motifs, one can conclude that there is an intimacy of relationship between the
inner and the outer word for Aquinas which mirrors that between the divine
and human natures in Christ, remembering that he always follows the ontogrammatical rule of the communicatio idiomatum when it comes to ascribing
respective attributes in this instance.
Hence just as the previous passage cited allowed that divine illumination
is also external and physical, so the present passage allows that our actual
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physical breathing is an analogue for the procession of the Holy Spirit. In
keeping with Trinitarian taxis, this breathing arises from, through and after
the utterance of the inner word and it is from this that outer speech is formed,
on analogy with the assumption of Christs material body. What seems to be
envisaged here is a seamless transition from the spiritual to the physical. It
would be legitimate to infer that, just as the utterance of the verbum mentis is
immediate by analogy with the Trinitarian generation, so also the physical
out-breathing of the word must be immediate like the procession of the Spirit,
as must also be the assumption of physical sounds and written indices,
since God does not change or move in becoming incarnate, any more
than he does in creating.
This would then suggest that the literal creativity of the inner word has
to extend to the external word also. But most strikingly of all, the analogy of
breathing to the Holy Spirit implies that the inner word cannot, even at a formal,
not just an instrumental level, dispense with the physical breathing-out of the
outer word, any more than the generation of the Logos can take place apart
from the procession of the Spirit. If the latter proceeds from (in the sense of
through) the former, then this is only because the Spirit is equally the womb
of generation. In the enigmatic divine ontologic, the Son is co-author of his
spiritual mother, without whom he nonetheless could not himself be born.29
Venard, then, has successfully established that there is at least the germ of
a genuine linguistic turn in Aquinas. Here also he is as much a renaissance
humanist in advance as he is medieval. This conclusion is also reinforced
by Venard in two specic ways, which revert to his Parisian preoccupations.
First of all, he would argue, the linguistic turn presupposes synaesthesia.
Why so? Because, I would venture, as Plato and Aristotle argued, one proof of
the soul is the way in which we are able to blend, through common sensing,
diverse senses which are radically incommensurate with one another, for all
that they are our original portals to reality, gateways behind which there is, for
now, no passing. If we accept, in consequence, the spirituality of mind as a
reality, then nevertheless we can still see, in Aristotelian terms, how we are
only able reexively to access our spiritual natures through the blending of the
diverse senses. Language reects this common sensing, since spoken or visual
signs can co-invoke other sounds or sights besides smells, tastes and touchings. Moreover, given Aquinass account of the verbum cordis and the springing
of breath from the psychic depths, one can argue that we require language in
order to achieve the work of common sensing in the rst place.
All this shows that the linguistic turn is by no means a materialist thesis,
but that belief in the soul and belief in the primacy of language belong together.
For if the soul and its power of spiritual cogitation are not real, then the
blending of sense is but an impenetrable fusion of univocal reexes in the
cortex, while linguistic signs are, after all, only sounds, only aural stimuli, and
our notion that they are articulate must be the self-delusion of selves that
are themselves but self-delusion down to the abyssal bodies of no selves at all.
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Venard nds reference to synaesthesia in Aquinas at the point where the
latter asks in his Commentary on John why Jesuss speaking immediately
converts into vision and vice-versa, while our sight and sound of Jesus are
similarly inseparable? (In Johannem III, 5). Of course, to recall the speaking
vision of section one, this is a sign of his absolute beauty. But it is also, for
Aquinas, a human translation, since agere sequitur esse, of the convertibility of
being and intelligence (via the generation of the Word) in the godhead
vision being related by Thomas to being, hearing to the understanding. For
human beings therefore, synaesthesia, which is always linguistic, is part of
our grasp of revelation and our ascent to the divine eminence.
The second reinvocation of Mallarm and Rimbaud concerns onomatopoeia. If signs are simply conventional, after Saussure, then it must be possible to grasp the signied and the organisation of signieds entirely apart
from the signier and the grammar of signication. But in that case words are
but convenient instruments, labels for concepts, and we have no linguistic
turn after all.
Venard locates a cautious Cratylism in Aquinass remarks on Aristotles
dealing with the question of the conventionality of words in Peri Hermeneias. In Sententia Metaphysicae 12531254 Thomas notes that Plato thought
words were named according to essence, Aristotle according to convention.
But his mediation between the two leans to the Platonic verdict: essences
can be named according to multiple aspects and so the Babylonian diversity of words for the same things is no argument against generalised
If, then, one agrees with Venard, as I think one should, that the linguistic
turn requires both generic synaesthesia and generalised onomatopoeia, then
one can also recognise that Aquinas presents in nuce a linguistic turn more
radical than anything usually espoused today.
It is now possible to half-accord with Venards stress that the inner word is
a terminus, provided one takes this in his own sense that the inner word is
inseparable from the outer word and the work of the verbum cordis in the
However, as Venard allows, the Augustinian verbum cordis concerns not
just the imagination, but also the uttering of the word through desire in echo
of the spiritual generation of the Logos in God: The concept of the heart has
of its own nature to proceed from something other than itselfnamely, from
the knowledge of the one conceiving (ST 1 q.34 a2 resp.). This links to the
more instrumental side of both the verbum mentis and the external sign.
Venard also allows that it is important to think the word (in general) as
sign, even if not too much as sign. By the latter caution he means that we
should not reduce the word to sign as mere means and forget the poetic
aspect of making knowledge as word which is also ars. Nevertheless, he
knows that if word is not sign at all, then there can be thoughts without
words and a thought itself is no longer an inner word.
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As also sign, which Venard underplays somewhat, the word is intentional. Maritain rightly diagnosed Husserlian intentionality as more Scotist
than Augustinian or Thomist, because it tends to mean the intention exercised
by a mental concept insofar as this concept of itself represents or phenomenally disclosesthe Scotist esse objectivum.30 By contrast, as Maritain so
accurately saw, Augustine linked intentionality of appearances both to semiotics and to ontologyagain exemplifying the link between realism and
hermeneutics of which I have already spoken. It is not that we intend phenomena by concepts (which then idealistically conne us) but that we
produce concepts as signs which intend things (through concrete images or
more abstract symbols) by signifying them. (This also delivers us from the
tedious recent dominance of the Levinasian thesis that intentionality
involves a sort of mental fascism.)
Once one has grasped both the intentionality of the word as sign, and yet
the inescapable semioticity of intending, one is able to understand better
the absolute coincidence of word as both terminus and oblique speculum.
Just to the measure that one concludes with a word one is surpassing that
word in its very naturerather as the divine Verbum is the absolute end, but
then there is another absolute endthe Donumbeyond this. The word
concludes, but it concludes in givinggiving to make and giving to see and
giving to communicate with others. This is why, for Aquinas, angels also
possess language, even though their only language is the inner word. They
are linguistic beings because they are directly present to each other and
ecstatically communicate with each other (ST I q.107).31
But the inverse holds also. The real things seen and made and transferred
by language and yet beyond language are extra-linguistic gifts because they
remain perceivable only in the enigmatic mirror of the sign. For a gift has to
have meaning, even though it has to have a materiality that exceeds that of
the sign.
This co-belonging of gift as substance and word as intention is more dryly
considered by Aquinas in De Ente et Essentia. There he says that form inheres
substantively in matter in the nite substantive world, just as species is here
subordinate to genus and accident to substance. And yet, he also says that
we can only apprehend this realm through a kind of cognitive democracy
whereby form and matter, genus and species, substance and accident, are
combined together in the mind merely as one sign qualifying another as
in the phrase rational animal (De Ente et Essentia, 2:510). In this way
esse intelligibile achieves just that levelling into event that the divine esse
achieves eschatologically.
Venards vestigial worries about the instrumentality of the sign as
opposed to the word show up again in his brief consideration of John of St.
Thomass semiotics. Here he cleaves once more to Yves Floucat rather than to
Maritain himself. He is concerned that the Baroque illuminary of Coimbra
and Alcal both rendered the act of understanding prior to the emanation of
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the inner word and downgraded the status of natural and cultural signs to a
purely instrumental one by dening only the concept as the real formal
sign, a sign whose only use is as a sign, unlike smoke which is simply smoke
as well as sign of re. This sheer signness of the concept, for Venard,
threatens to reduce the inner word to a pure linguistic instrument, subservient to thought as such.
But I would argue, following Jacques Maritain, John Deely and others, that
for all Juan Poinsots (John of St Thomass) CounterReformation distortions,
with respect to his thinking about language he exhibits (in a crucial development from the earlier Coimbra school of Fonseca and his successors),
a Dominican humanism that is often authentically in keeping with that of
Aquinas. He actually opposes, as Venard mentions, one common scholastic
thesis (for example in Henry of Ghent) that intelligence is prior to the word
(for both God and spiritual creatures) and argues that the mental word is the
form of a cognition insofar as it is terminated or complete (Cursus Philosophicus II q.2). And in seeing the inner word as formal sign he fully retains
and indeed re-emphasises the view that it stands in real relation to the
things intentionally invoked by the sign, besides being really related to the
knower, since every thought as such is the generation of a verbum mentis
(Cursus Philosophicus I q.3). Hence both from the point of view of the intelligence and that of the res, the instrumentality of the sign is here neither
dispensable nor merely convenient. Rather, as Deely has shown, it belongs for
Poinsot to a semiotic dimension of reality which elaborates Aquinass esse
intentionale, as Maritain already suggested.32 As for instrumental signs
which may be either natural or instituted for Poinsot, while they are less
purely signs, they still partake as signs in formality, which is precisely what
guarantees that a sign is no mere short-hand instrument, but the very basis of
all conceptuality. All signs, for this reason, including instrumental ones (and
instituted as well as natural ones), are for Poinsot instances of real relation
(Boethiuss relationes secundum esse as opposed to merely causal or conventional relationes secundum dici), inseparable therefore from aspects of nature
(like a trace of a swan upon the water) as well as from our conceptual being,
and so not surveyable in their semiotic process from a sign-free objective
vantage-point (Cursus Philosophicus I qq. 12; II qq. 2, 5,6).
In more rmly placing sign in the category of ontological relation, it can
be argued that Poinsot consummated Aquinass crucial and under-noted
modication and development of Augustines doctrine of signs. Augustine,
in De Doctrina Christiana, had, in ignorance of Greek, placed verbum in the
category of signum (rather than symbolon, more linked to methexis) where
the Greek thinkers had reserved semeion for a natural sign. Thereby, as both
John Deely and Umberto Eco have perceptively remarked, he opened up an
ontological and epistemological space common to both nature and culture.33
Both equally exhibit a signifying dimension, and as Sherlock Holmes realised, the tracking of cultural clues follows the same paths as the tracking of
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natural cluesas synthesised in the unmistakable print of a particular boot
along a muddy track. Augustine accordingly dened the sign as anything
perceived that can make us aware of something else.
However, Augustine conned the signum to objects of perception, including the signs of language, and tended to reduce its signicatory power to the
mere conventionality of the word. He did not regard either the concept or
the percept as a sign. But Robert Markus well pinpoints the irony here: in his
Trinitarian theology, Augustine elaborated the notion of the verbum mentis
as precisely a mode of word which exceeds mere convention.34 If he had
allowed that this inner word is also sign, then a greater sign-character of
all words (and all signs) might have appeared to view. This is important,
for since the paradigm of semeion/signum is natural, as in the archetypal
smoke/re example, the inherited bias of the sign concept is towards
mind-independence, ontological realism and indispensability.
But in the Middle Ages, rst somewhat with Roger Bacon, and then more
decisively with Aquinas, the verbum mentis began to be also understood as
signum. Aquinas already sees that the concept is most purely sign and so
most purely word because it only exists as signifying, unlike a perceived
thing which has also a non-signifying independent existence, like smoke (De
Veritate q.4 a1 ad 7). He solidies this insight by recognising that the inner
word fulls the functions of both signier and signied, unlike the outer
wordhere, like Augustine in a different fashion, anticipating Saussures
apparatus: vox est signum et non signatum tantum; intellectus autem signum et
signatum, sicut et res (Quodlibetal Questions, q.9 a.17).
Aquinas also considered the verbum cordis or imagined word as percept to
be likewise a sign. This went along with his general immunity to representationalism, because he denied that sensations simply as sensations carry
any sort of image of what they represent. Sensations per se are more like
sheerly efcient physical reactions in which the information involved is, as
it were, blind. This ensures that real apprehension always involves a semiotic dimension. Moreover, after some initial hesitation, Aquinas allowed that
the angels language, though non-discursive, does involve signs, because it
conveys one thing by means of another (the conceptual word) to a potential
cognitive recipient (the same or another angel). Aquinas seems now to
describe Augustines sense of the sign, which is a discursive use of something
not previously a sign as a sign (a natural object or a logical or a grammatical
term) as sign properly speaking. Yet clearly, as Deely argues, the more
general sense of sign is for him also the more fundamental one: this denes
sign as anything whatsoever known on the basis of which something else
is known. By this denition angels do know things through signs; and so
too does one angel speak to another through a sign, namely, by means of a
specifying form or concept in the actuality of which the understanding of
the one angel is rendered directed or ordered to that of the other angel
(De Veritate, q. 9a.4 ad 4 and ad 5).
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From Scotus through to Ockham and the early modern Iberian thinkers like
Fonseca, this linguistication of thought gets interpreted in an increasingly
nominalistic fashion. However, in viewing the concept as initially a denotative
categorematic sign of an individual object, or else as a syncategorematic
term permitting the connotative attribution of real qualities, Ockham effectively dispensed with the idea that the generation of an inner word is a
genuinely creative moment in the production of a thought. (Here he is in the
lineage of Scotus who saw the act of understanding itself as the production of
a word only because he reduced this act to a mere willed display of the species
dormant in the memory.)35 At the same time, with less razoring than Aquinas
(as Deely gleefully points out), Ockham thinks of sensation as only completed
qua sensation in the mental imaging of what it senses. One then arrives at the
taking a look model of cognition (as Lonergan accurately and pejoratively
described it) that will survive as far as Locke: a non-generating gazing
intellect substitutes a concept for an imaging (and instrumentally signifying)
percept in the manner of a merely conveniently used linguistic term. Even
though he began to see, beyond Ockham, that the formal sign is radically
fundamental to understanding, Pedro Fonseca of Coimbra in Portugal in the
early seventeenth century eventually reduced this formality to representation, and landed up agreeing with Ockham in seeing all signifying relations
(natural and cognitive) as transcendental (secundum dici), which is to say
either causal or conventional.
But from all this history it follows that one can argue, in support of Venard,
that Aquinas, not nominalism, executed a genuine linguistic turn. Our thinking is not rst representative of a perceived image, but is rst expressive of a
concept proper to the realm of the intellectual. The individual is rst known
as sign in a sense far more radical than Ockhams, for it is only known
in terms of a generality (this stone is also known as any stone) germane
to the character of sign as such.
Poinsots placing of the verbum interius in the category of formal sign is
therefore genuinely in keeping with Aquinass innovation. What is more, the
Portuguese Thomist arguably radicalised both Aquinas and Augustine by
stressing so emphatically that natural signs and stipulated human signs can
both be mind-independent in terms of their ontological constitution.
Instead of representational empiricism which lead to scepticism, Aquinas
already had the view that our thought slips into a really relational space that
nature has prepared for it, while our mind adds further real relations to
ontic reality. But Poinsots underlined insistence that the sign as such is a real
relation allows one to see all cultural artefacts, all ctions in Venards sense,
as having an equal ontological density with natural things, and not as just acts
of accurate theoretical judgement. In this way he gives a new weight to the
poetic. One should also mention that he allowed that the knowing subject
as representing (but not in any mirroring sense) a known thing transcended the sign-relation in the sense that my knowledge of this stone
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partially oats free of the sign-relation to the stone, just as the stone exists
independently of me (Cursus Philosophicus I q.1). One could say here that this
is his equivalent of a grasp of the distinction and yet simultaneous operation
of the enunciated (related) subject and the (unrelated) subject of enunciationor, on the objective side, between the signied thing as supposited and
the real thing as supposited.
And all this is undergirded by his invocation of the Trinity: since real
relation is common both to substantial and to intellectual being, in
God one sees the perfect coincidence of the two when a sheerly intellectual
relation becomes also a substantiveand thereby an incomprehensibly
absoluteone (Cursus Philosphicus, Praeambulum Secundum, aa 2,3). And here
of course the subjects of enunciation are the enunciated subjects, just as the
virtual are the actual supposita.
In this way, despite his Baroque scholastic limitations, Poinsot nevertheless newly opened up the possibility of understanding the specically ctional, cultural being of Man as a participation in the Trinity. And yet
Venard is not wrong to see also his Baroque scholastic limitations. He does
indeed concede too much to non-Thomistic traditions by making the interior word as terminus depend upon a priority of the intellect as understanding (Cursus Philosophicus, II, q.2). This would not seem to encompass
the radical illuminating immediacy of Aquinass account of the emanation
of the verbum mentis. Moreover, the sameperhaps this time Scotistic
intrusion is shown also in his Trinitarian theology. While, indeed, he agrees
with Aquinas in denying that the divine intellect qua essence contains
a generated Word, in contrast to the notional act of Trinitarian understanding (notional in the sense that the reality of the Trinitarian relations
requires us to use distinct notions for them), he grants an ontological
priority to the essence not allowed by Aquinas, such that it would seem that
in its deepest reality intelligence involves neither word nor sign (Cursus
Philosophicus II q.2). This compromises the ontological ultimacy of relation
and claries why Poinsot also says that the priority of the intellectual generating act over the generated word can be compared with the priority
of esse over our understanding itselfthereby rendering the word but a
limitation of the understanding. This interpretation is conrmed by the
fact that Poinsot only allows that the verbum mentis is really related to the
knower in respect of its conceptuality, not with respect to its formality as a
sign. But this suggests that he does not fully permit (Cursus Philosophicus
I q.3) that the knowing act as such is involved in an emanation of an inward
sign which is both immediate and necessary for its operation. It also shows,
as Deely fails to notice, that he half-retreats to Fonseca at the point where
the representation of a thing that has partially transcended the real relation of the verbum mentis as formal sign to thing ought nevertheless to
remain a formal sign with respect to the real relation involved in its inward
generation by the power of the understanding.
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In these respects Venard is right to call attention to Poinsots limitations: he
grasps the real relationality of the sign as a dimension linking nature and
culture and sees the model for this in the Trinitarian God. But this remains a
mere proportional analogical isomorphism and not a participatory analogy of
attribution of the word in Gods being. Hence God as such, esse as such, is
not nally seen as linguistic. At the last ontological gasp, John of St Thomas
instrumentalised and subordinated the formality of the sign after all.
Yet in the positive ways just summed up, he is arguably more Venards
ally than the latter allows. He does not, as Venard suggests, reduce sign to
allegorical convention, abandoning its necessity for meaning, which is
horizontally akin to Dionysian vertical symbolism.
And here one might also want to question Venards supposedly romantic
view that allegory and symbol are to be so contrasted. As Paul de Man
showed, even the romantics did not consistently make such a contrast, and to
do so is to risk sundering the vertical participation of the symbol from the
conventional reading of reality and assigning of names by human beings in
the course of time. One then lands up with precisely that impossible attempt
to save the sanctity of the symbol as ineffable in Rimbaudan attempt
bound to lead to nihilism in the way that Venard describes. It is nonetheless
true that both de Man and Walter Benjamin favoured the allegorical in such
a way as to stress the ironic removal of meaning from the real, such that
all allegory becomes the allegory of death and mourning, as Benjamin
But as negatively in the case of Rimbaud, a joyful Christian irony trumps
even this irony. For Christian allegoresis, which is at once both conventional
and symbolic, all signs point, as Venard insists in Sacra Pagina, towards the
cross. Only in his perfect suffering of an agony-unto-death is Christ fully
displayed as the divine Word in a fallen world. The cross shows the divine
language in the restored Adamic language by enduring and so exposing
precisely our meaning. Yes, the story of fallen humanity is an allegory of
death, but in the resurrection and the Eucharist the hyper-ironic manifestation
of this ironic removal of meaning from life is transgured into the magical
word of re-creation. The symbolic narration which is true allegoresis is fullled
in the language and practice of tropical guidance and anagogic hope.
7. From Toulouse to Jerusalem
It is this restoration of language as recorded by the scriptures and perpetuated by the scriptures which Venard describes in the third volume, Sacra
Pagina. In it he deals most directly with the human sphere of the manifest or
the ctional in its highest mode of faith. Faith lies before and beyond
reason because reality is only realised in the manifestation of ction which
is inherently questionable and must be interpreted. Faith, suggests Venard,
is itself such an interpretation, which at the same time does not need to
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pretend, like a faithless rationalist metaphysical dogmatism, that it is not a
mode of literature. This literature occupies the space between physical
reality and language which, as we have seen, is mediated by the verbum
mentis and above all by the verbum cordis, which links outer and inner words
in the imagination. Because it involves our verbal response to things-assigns, faith as ction belongs supremely to this imaginary sphere. But for
Aquinas, as for Augustine, when we inhabit this sphere we are not locked
inside our own mental space, but rather abide in a real mundus imaginalis,
which has a visionary opening to the angels and especially the middle rank
of angels or powers, just as the world of the intellect (esse intelligibile)
has a visionary opening to God and the upper rank of angels or thrones,
while the world of the senses and the body has a visionary opening to the
material heaven and the lowest rank of angels or principalities (angels
and archangels proper) (ST I q.108 a.6).
So faith knows that we have imaginatively to suppose, to supposit, to
conjecturebut Christian faith believes that God has descended into time
to provide us with a true conjecturing and a true tradition of the same.
It is in this way, as we have seen, that Venard can say that theology founds
metaphysics. In terms of the structures of revelation, as he now describes
them, formality and efciency are always conjoined. The character of the
revealed word as divine cannot appear at all except as remotely characterised
by its origin.
What the Bible recounts, therefore, is the linguistic birth of humanity as a
participation in the divine language. Since, as we have seen, language is really
inside literature, the divine Logos is also seen in the Bible as a book, and the
book of the Bible is itself, by grant of the incarnation of God in the esh, an
incarnation of this eternal volume.
Because of the swing-door logic of enunciation and supposition,
however, this book (unlike the Koran) is inseparable from history. Although
it is in a technical sense a ction, it is so as that manifestation without
which historical reality could not have occurred in the rst place as the
conjunction of occurrence with meaning. For this reason, Venard is scathing
about the Yale schools category of history-like narrative, realising that this
betrays the integrity of both history and ction and the character of the link
between the two. Narrative that only pretended to be history would be
untrue, while the implication of the phrase is that a ctional narrative can
mimic some sort of literal realism proper to real history. Instead, as Venard
notes, the four-fold allegoresis moves in a circle: from the text of the Bible back
to the literal sense of history and then back again to a textual context of
meaningfully anticipated future history. This circularity is not imposed upon
the Bible, but is already implicit in its assumptions. Throughout its course,
the Bible tends towards a seamless weaving together of event and signicance. Insofar as the latter has for it a priority, insofar as language-literature
is more important for the Bible than history, this is not because the Bible is
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spinning myths, but rather because it is always trying to lead us from the
natural level of history towards the supernatural level of divine
meaning, which the inherent excess of meaning over event, that alone constitutes an event as event, already points towards.
Accordingly, the Bible embodies and dramatises the natural desire for the
supernatural. As Venard argues, this is often played out in terms of an excess
of hearing over vision, the two being nonetheless synaesthesically fused
together in scene after scene. However, if text points to reality which returns
to text, the expectation is that in the end the two will be apocalyptically fused.
Christ will appear as the book of life and words will themselves be rendered
supremely visible.
But this apocalypse is already present in the Incarnation. Venard rightly
contends that the entire Bible, but especially the New Testament, has ironically defeated Biblical criticism in advance through its own hyper-critical and
post-reective (which we also saw is a post-philosophical) outlook. For
it, in the case of the Logos, pure relation is at once substance and word, and the
incarnation of the second person of the Trinity incarnates just this situation.
It follows that Jesuss life is in excess of the history within which he is
apparently situated, such that the facts of his life are entirely saturated with a
ctional meaningor, inversely, the ctions of his life are the facts.
The textuality of the four gospels is an astonishing attempt to convey
this situation and to abolish entirely the usual remaining gap between fact,
signicance and power to signify. In this way they remain always one step
ahead of the apparently critical but in reality naive historical critic, whose
very endeavour, when not metacritically qualied, is at best Nestorian and
at worst anti-Christian, since the Incarnation of itself (as absolute unity of
history and ction, inside and yet really, not mythically, outside normal
history) subverts entirely the assumptions of the normal historical endeavour.
For Venard this is supremely true of the passion narratives. He here
invokes Louis Chardon, whose Baroque doctrine of radical kenosis in Le
Croix de Jsus involves no straightforward sundering of Father from Son, but
rather their common experience of a barrenness of the shared Spirit.37 The
ontologically constitutive absence of the latter to the Father-Son relation in
the immanent Trinity, of which the Spirit as bond is nonetheless exhaustively
the substantively relational expression, becomes for Chardon the ground
upon which the human nature of Christ can experience this absence negatively, and yet remain within love, since the irremovable meaning of this
absence-as-distance is love: love between Father and Son and love beyond
Father and Son. Because of the communicatio idiomatum the divine person of
the Son itself becomes the subject of this radically impossible alienation.
And this experience of the absence of the Spirit which is the Spirit as absence
does indeed mean that the Son experiences the absence of the Father, since
the love beyond the Father and Son relation is nonetheless only the
communicatively retroactive establishment of their relation. However, unlike
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Balthasar, Chardon properly follows through on the paradox: the Son
without the Fathersince he is Son only as fathered, according to the logic
of substantive relationis also the Son without the Son, an inconceivably
absolute self-alienation and impossible spectatorship of self-abolition. It
would seem then that Christ underwent the impossible experience, not of
a rift within the Trinity (as with Balthasar), but rather of God himself as
absence, which means the inconceivable and yet ultimately nightmarish annihilation of esse as such, including ones own human existencethe death of
God indeed, but not a Lutheran mythical and monophysite passage of the
divine-human nature wholly into a loveless moment of nite extinction. For
since this death can only be undergone as utterly anguished terror, in this
moment the survival after all of esse = deus as most fundamentally love
becomes manifest. Esse, one might say, after Cusa, is most fundamentally the
power to be and this power is amor.
Here the communication of idioms secures the reality of resurrection in
which esse as such is restored and upheld upon a ction of perfect human
response to Good as entirely love, that the Annunciation and then the Incarnation has brought about on earth through the assent of both Mary and Jesus.
In a sense it must be true that Christs human suffering upon the cross is
alone (following the logic of substantive relation) what brings the Creation
into being.
Because of the Incarnation, the ction of human meaning now possesses
a magical power. Christ is raised because the very absence of the creative
current of the Holy Spirit as owing between Father and Son, experienced as
a sad love, causes that current again to ow for Christs humanity and the
humanity of all of us. Christs human word become enacted gesture on the
cross (the ve wounds being compared to the ve vowels by Odo of Cheriton) gains the power of self-resurrection and this power is then transmitted
to the Church as the power of the word in relation to sacramental action. All
human meaning is reduced to unmeaning on the cross, and yet this very
unmeaning proves to be the source of all future meaning: suffering endured
as love has power over nite being as such. Similarly, in the Eucharist, our
haunting by linguistic scepticism is only undone by an apparent straining of
all credulity: a supreme plenitude of linguistic denotation (the body of God)
seems mismatched with its referential content (bread and wine). However,
what might appear to be the mere catachretic breaking-point of connotation
(body is like bread, blood is like wine) is established only, as Venard says
explicitly after Catherine Pickstock, in a metaphoric surpassing of all metaphor. The metaphor holds because it is more than metaphor: because a real
transubstantiation has taken place through the magical power of Christs
reiterated words. In consequence, the bread and the wine do indeed act as
tactile metaphors because they really, as now accidents, inhere directly in the
substance of Christs humanity which is at one with the divine esse as such.
The fracturing of normal nite ontology is possible because of the elevation of
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the event which the metaphysics of esse involves. As Venard suggests, the
Eucharist already involves the poetic alchemy for which Rimbaud strained
in the nineteenth century (and poets like John Donne, Henry Vaughan and
eventhe once LaudianMilton sought verbally to recreate in the seventeenth century) and therefore all true art must understand itself as a prelude
to, and extension of, the Eucharistic action, in the manner realised by Paul
Claudel and David Jones.
Adamic language is therefore restored by the Bible in terms of words
that intimate essences and are therefore effective. Venard argues that all the
gospels intimate this. In each case, not just Johns, their prologues suggest
that Jesus is the Logos and the Arche, in terms of a hypostasised beginning
linked to the beginning of the gospel itself (Mark and Luke) or a lial
generation that passes innitely backwards to all of human history and all
of reality (Matthew). Likewise, all the gospels present Jesus as teaching in
parables that have been hidden since the katabole, the foundation of the
world, and are somehow linked to this foundation. Unlike most rabbinic
urban stories, Jesuss parables are mostly rural, and often concerned with the
generative power of seeds or certain missing items. In the rst case Venard
points out that the germinating seed is specically joined to the generative
power of Jesuss own word, while in the second case one can suggest that the
missing items are like missing words which Jesus himself supplies. It is
scarcely concealed (though so many critical readers are entirely obtuse
about this) by all the evangelists that Jesuss word is equivalent to the divine
creative word and hence has the power to heal and even to raise from the
dead. And, as Venard also mentions, it has been noted ever since Origen that
Jesus cannot be seized while he is speaking. He is magically immune so long
as he does not remain mute.
Since all the Bible performs the linguistic birth of the human subject and
seeks to weave a seamless robe of event, meaning, and power-to-mean, the
re-birth of the human subject through divine impersonation by the divine
Logos can be held to intensify and consummate this multiple text. For this
reason, Venard suggests that a dogmatic hermeneutic by no means does
violence to this text. This hermeneutic has three aspects.
First, it obeys a monotheistic grammar. God utters himself as a tautology
in Exodus, and Venard suggests that the burning bush is also a gure for
thisthe re that burns without consuming is self-referential. And this is one
aspect of biblical languagevisions speak of what lies beyond, but these
words turn back again to gures of throne-chariots, angels, cherubim, divine
men, monstrously sublime bestial apparitions which, as theophanies, point
only to themselves. The grotesquely imaginative oriental beauty of the biblical
text itself is a theophany and can only disclose the tautologous God through
this self-reference.
Secondly, it obeys a Trinitarian grammar. In the Trinity, causality is
reversed. The Father is father through the Son and both exist through the
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procession of the Spirit. Equivalently, beyond Judaism, Christianity does not
concern simply the apocalyptic disclosure and return of the origin. Instead,
the Old Testament is constituted backwards through Christ, even though
Christ is only the exegesis of this historical origin. For the text of the New
Testament to be formed, as Franois Martin says, the subject of enunciation
must step out of the texts enunciated subjectivityeven though this appears
to be the space for the emergence of human subjectivity as such. So Jesus
appears in Luke as a reader of the scriptures in the Templeand once again
at Capernaum there is a synaesthesic switch back and forth from visual
presence to spoken word to transgured visual presence at the end. Jesuss
message and identity is announced in hearing but what this hearing
announces is his own visual presencethe message is his identity, an underlined tautology of the word.
Yet from the Annunciation through his Baptism onwards, Jesus himself is
reversely constituted as divine subject (ontologically as well as epistemologically) through the work of the Holy Spirit, even though this proceeds through
him. He is incarnate as received by our response to the divine call, beginning
with Mary. This is the Marian paradox (perhaps not adequately dealt with by
the Scotist and not Thomist doctrine of the immaculate conception?): only the
divine Logos in person restores human language, and yet from the outset this
brings about, through the Holy Spirit, our cooperative response, and cannot
come about without this response from the outset. God is not incarnate as
monologue! If Christ took on esh then he also took on language and this
language only holds in time in the rst place by entering into reciprocity.
Thus, as Venard suggests, Christ is incarnate in the texts of the New Testament, even though these texts also embody the beginning of human
response. Equivalently, the Church is the body of Christ because it is also a
charismatic receiving of Christ through the reception of the Spirit. So there is
also a spiritual reverse constitution. As Christological subjects we are
enunciated within the Christic text yet only insofar as we also as integral
persons exceed that text as subjects of enunciation in our own right.
Thirdly, it obeys a Christological grammar. Venard consistently sees
the co-belonging of meaning and event, as of vision and sound (being and
intellect for Aquinas) as the communication of the idioms between Christs
divinity and his humanity, which, as we have seen, is the ground for the
integralism of supernatural and natural. It is for this reason that the revealed
textual word surprisingly refers us back to history, as if to remind us that its
surplus is only a surplus already germane to human nature. Yet history itself
(for fourfold exegesis) turns out to be more plenitudinously sign than the
linguistic sign and moves us to imagine further textual signs. Inversely,
tropicality and anagogy of sense point in the end to a transformed cosmos, to
the consummation of the supernatural as a transguration of the natural.
The Bible then, is the effective word of God which demands, of itself, to
be read in doctrinal terms. This is because the specicity of the Christian
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184 John Milbank

Biblethe canon, the particular texts selected, the versions of those texts
was from the outset an entirely dogmatic and Christological constitution.
Any other Bible is a fantasy.
For the Bible rst existed in multiple scrolls which were read aloud, usually
in liturgical or meditative contexts. Then it became, in the Latin west, a codex.
But its alphabetic letters were still diversely produced by different hands and
every Bible was physically different and regarded as a sacred object. Words
were ornamented and the pictorial character of the letters was seen as an
intrinsic part of the lettering. Letters themselves turned into visions on the
page. The original texts were often surrounded with commentaries and
the Bible continued to be mainly read aloud in groups. But long before the
advent of printing, both the appropriation of minuscule from the Arabs and
the new prevalence of silent monastic reading after the twelfth century,
alongside the new invention of verses within chapters, helped to encourage
a spatialising approach to the textual page, such that it came to be seen
more in terms of a closed rational unity, denying the priority of the event.
Printing only consolidated this tendency and ensured the illusion that the
Bible is a discrete written foundational document fully open to individual
perusal and judgement.38 Although Aquinas already inherited this scholastic
rationalisation of the text, one can see both his practice of lectio and his
metaphysics of esse as working against the silent abolition of time.
I am the way, the truth and the life. As though to say, suggests Venard,
I am the sign, the signied and the referent. Or semiotics, phenomenology
and ontology. Or the outer word, the inner word, and esse as such. Or the
Son, the Spirit and the Father. The eternal divine literature become incarnate
in a human book: Thomistic Kabbalah.



See Philipp Rosemann, Where America takes its pictures: Only Theology saves Language
in Pragmata: Festschrift fr Kalus Oehler sum 80. Geburtstag (Tbingen: Gunter Narr, 2007),
pp. 170177; Klaus Oehler, Blicke aus dem Philophenturm. Eine Rckschau (Hildesheim: Olms,
2007), p. 150.
See John Milbank, The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Debate Concerning the
Supernatural (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), passim, but
especially, pp. 1112.
John Milbank, The Legend of Death: Two Poetic Sequences (Eugene OR: Cascade Books, 2008).
Olivier-Thomas Venard, Thomas dAquin, pote thologien, vol. 1, Littrature et Thologie: Une
saison en enfer (Geneva: Ad Solem, 2002); vol. 2, La langue de lineffable: Essai sur le fondement
thologique de la mtaphysisique (Geneva: Ad Solem, 2004); vol. 3, Sacra Pagina:le passage de
lcriture sainte lcriture thologique (Paris/Geneva: Cerf/Ad Solem, 2009).
See Venard, Littrature et Thologie.
See Venard, La langue de lineffable.
Alain Michel, La parole et la beaut (Paris: Albin Michel, 1994).
Paul Claudel, The Eye Listens (New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1950); Jean-Louis
Chrtien, The Visible Voice in The Call and the Response trans. Anne A. Davenport (New
York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2004), pp. 3343.
Bruno Latour, Pandoras Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge MS:
Harvard University Press, 1999).

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Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Tarsk
(Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press 1991), p. 217.
See Sarah Nair James, Signorelli and Fra Angelico at Orvieto: Liturgy, Poetry and a Vision of the
End (London: Ashgate, 2003), pp. 7891, 130146.
Catherine Pickstock, After Writing (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), pp. 253266. Cf. Peter M.
Candler Jr., Liturgically Trained Memory: A Reading of Summa Theologiae III.83, Modern
Theology Vol. 20 no 3, (July, 2004), pp. 423445.
M-D Chenu, La Thologie come sceince au XIIIe sicle (Paris: J. Vrin 1957), pp. 6792.
Chenu, La Thologie comme science, pp. 97100.
See Milbank, The Suspended Middle, pp. 88203; John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock, Truth
in Aquinas (London: Routledge, 2005).
See Philipp W. Rosemann, Omne ens est aliquid (Louvain: Peeters, 1996).
Here I am indebted to Aaron Riches, Christ, the End of Humanism (Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 2010).
J.M. Schoot, Christ, the Name of God: Thomas Aquinas on Naming Christ (Leuven: Peeters,
For the exegetical claims of these two paragraphs, see John Milbank, The Suspended Middle.
See Venard, Sacra Pagina.
For a discussion of other thinkers taking this position see John Milbank, The Word Made
Strange (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), pp. 55120.
Franois Martin, Pour une thologie de la lettre: Linspiration des critures (Paris: Cerf, 1996).
Dominique Dubarle, Dieu avec Ltre (Paris: Beauchesne, 1986), pp. 167258.
See Milbank and Pickstock, Truth in Aquinas.
Again, I am indebted to Aaron Riches here.
Conor Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism: Philosophies of Nothing and the Difference of
Theology (London: Routledge, 2002).
Louis Lachance, Philosophie du langage (Montral: Lvrier, 1943).
See Louis Chardon, Le Croix de Jsus (Paris: Cerf, 2004), pp. 407419.
Jacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge, trans. Gerald B. Phelan (Notre Dame IN:
University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), p. 109.
See Jean-Louis Chrtien, Le langage des anges selon la scolastique in La Voix Nue:
Phnomnologie de la Promesse (Paris: Minuit, 1990), pp. 8198.
For a great deal of what follows on the history of semiotics, I am indebted to John N. Deelys
huge book, Four Ages of Understanding (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001). Concerning the history of the sign this work is remarkably perceptive, though in other ways
Deely is all too modern a scholastic, colour-blind to the complexities of esse, denying the
Dionysian and neoplatonic elements in Aquinas, failing to mark fully the interruptus of
univocity and disenchantment with Scotus, admiring of the hopelessly off-track Ralph
See John Milbank, The Linguistic Turn as a Theological Turn in The Word Made Strange
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), pp. 84120.
Robert Markus, St Augustine on Signs in Augustine: a Collection of Critical Essays ed. R.A.
Markus, (Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1972), pp. 6191.
See Olivier Boulnois, tre et rprsentation: une gnalogie de la mtaphysique moderne
lpoque de Duns Scot, XIIIe-XIVe sicle (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1999),
pp. 114128.
Walter Benjamin, The Origins of German Tragic Drama (London: Verso, 2003); Paul de Man,
The Rhetoric of Temporality in Blindness and Insight (Minneapolis, MN: University of
Minnesota Press, 1983), pp. 187228.
For Chardon see note 26 above and for his account of the passion in relation to the Trinity,
La Croix de Jsus, pp. 363395.
On all this, see also Boulnois, Au-del de limage: une archologie du visuel au Moyen ge,
Ve-XVIe sicle (Paris: d. du Seuil, 2008) and Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the
Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).

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