Theology as Grammar

During the past month I’ve been reading through books and articles published in a syllabus for a “Philosophy for Theology” course at the University of Dayton taught by Brad Kallenberg. Kallenberg was a student of Nancey Murphy and has made some unique contributions to the study of Aquinas and Wittgenstein. Much of his work focuses on Wittgenstein in relation to Aristotle’s/Aquinas’ understanding of the close relationship between ethics and practical reasoning. You know, the stuff your parents taught you, like learning any skill requires time and commitment, and only later does it become second nature with practice.

I get the idea that reading Thomas’ interpreters can be like listening to your parents sometimes, except, in this case, you have to first listen to them in medieval Latin. Reading discussions of terminology that doesn’t have the same meaning in contemporary English looking for a few insights isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Changing the metaphor, Ben Myers, says, “[I] reckon reading a good work of Wittgensteinian Thomism is like taking a bath: you emerge clean, fresh and invigorated – even if it’s hard to see exactly what you’ve taken away from the experience.” 

Nonetheless, I persisted. As I read three of these thinkers, Fergus Kerr, David Burrell, and Herbert McCabe, I began to appreciate three things: focus on methodology and definition, rootedness and development within tradition, and close readings of texts. This theological tradition does these best. Wittgenstein is a dialogue partner for these Thomists because his overall approach regarding language draws out a number of latent ideas in Aquinas. Of course, there are other thinkers that have been made to serve the same function, notably Immanuel Kant.  The interpreters influenced by Wittgenstein, as a rule, don’t pretend to be Thomistic originalists. Denys Turner, commenting first on McCabe’s methods and interests, states, “He’d been deeply influenced by Thomas Aquinas. Somehow or other Wittgenstein came into the mix as well; though quite when it was Wittgenstein, when it was Thomas Aquinas, and when it was Herbert, was an entire mystery to me, and it didn’t seem to matter.

I want to look at three examples of writing under the category “Wittgensteinian Thomism”. The first is chapter 7 of Fergus Kerr’s Theology After Wittgenstein. The second David Burrell’s Aquinas: God and Action, particularly chapter 6 “An Objection: Process Theology”.  The third is Herbert McCabe’s essay “Eucharist as Language” (Modern Theology 15:2 April 1999).


Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.

For Fergus Kerr the key to the relationship between Wittgenstein and Aquinas is Wittgenstein’s phrase in the Philosophical Investigations, “theology as grammar” which he  apparently borrowed from Luther.

Grammar tells us what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar).”

Wittgenstein reflects that we want to know what kind of language is being used, how the language is taken by its speakers, and the rules of the conversation.  We cannot get straight to the “thing itself” without going through words. Applying this to theology, we must realize that faith is embedded in human life and stop viewing it as some inward and invisible mental-spiritual state. It follows, then, that one cannot take words out of their original religio-cultural context without altering their meaning.

“Whether I mean the same thing by saying ‘I believe in God’ as other people do when they say the same thing will come out a various places in our lives: our practices, aspirations, hopes, virtues, and so on. It will show in the rest of what we do whether we have faith in God. It will not be settled by our finding that we make the same correlation between our words and some item of metaphysical reality…Faith, in appropriate circumstances, is visible in one’s behavior; it is not some undetectable inner object.” — Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein.

The fact that religious belief is intwined with our history means that we are also not going to be able to criticize belief from some neutral, scientific perspective. Here Kerr gives an account of Wittgenstein’s reading of Frazer’s The Golden Bough. It reminded me of Girard’s views on myth in comparison with Joseph Campbell’s in our day.

“In effect, Frazer’s theorizing conceals our kingship with his savages by assuming that their customs can be made intelligible to modern civilized men round Cambridge college dinner table only by dispassionate observation – as if these tables were not occupied by beings at least as sinister as any dancing savage. By resorting to scientific objectivity we have a method of disowning biological and historical continuity with our ancestors…We prefer a certain interpretation of other people’s behavior to understanding what is deep and sinister in ourselves…That considering the execution of an innocent man is a more promising starting point for sustaining Christian theology than proving that God exists might be one unsurprising conclusion.” — Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein.

This leads me to another Wittgensteinian Thomist, David Burrell. What is the nature of this God we believe in? In recent years, the classical paradigm has been challenged by process thought that claims a new and better metaphysic. Are the classical concepts hopelessly contaminated with substantialist metaphysics? Is Thomas’ concept of God static? David Burrell responds to the objections of process theology with an explanation of Aquinas intentions. In short, Burrell shows, onc again, the usefulness of the idea of “theology as grammar”. He believes that Hartshorne and others are not attentive enough to the specific context and grammar of Aquinas’ system:

“...the fault lies no so much with Aquinas as with those who neglect his warning signals and mistake his inquiry into what God is not for a treatment of the divine nature. More specifically, the crucial oversight consists in failing to appreciate the philosophic virtue of the ‘linguistic turn’.” (Burrell, 91)

Aquinas had two central concerns when speaking of God.  Th first was that he didn’t want Christians to think of God as one more thing in the world. The second was that he didn’t want them to think of God as having anything we might describe as lack (i.e. needing something in order to be complete). These two concerns function as limiters to speech, not positive statements.

Nothing is learned directly about God by insisting that he must be good, limitless, unchangeable, and one. Rather, Aquinas shows how these predicates are equivalent to the key predicate simple, which in turn serves as a systematic reminder that nothing can be said of God. Many have overlooked the explicitly grammatical cast of these question, of course, and confused such predicates with divine attributes like loving, merciful, just, and faithful…If ‘unchangeable’, for example, is taken as a descriptive term rather than a proscription, we can only regard it as characterizing a situation. And ‘static’ means ‘zero motion’. Aquinas, however, derives unchangeableness from simpleness. As we have already noted, he makes that derivation precisely to remind us that God is beyond the very category of motion (with its contraries of movement and rest). — David Burrell, Aquinas: God and Action.

Of course, we still have a need for direct statements (what we should say about God). According to Burrell, each limiter (Burrell calls them prescriptive rubrics) is followed by a related observation on a different level of discourse:

After remarking on God’s simpleness, Aquinas affirms his perfection; after showing good to be equivalent to being, he can speak of God’s goodness. Having derived limitlessness from simpleness, he speaks of God’s existence in things, and after showing how unchangeableness follows from limitlessness, Aquinas talks about the eternity of God. Unity carries two dimensions within itself: on the one hand, whatever is one; on the other hand, oneness suggests wholeness. — Burrell, Aquinas: God and Action.

Aquinas does get around to using traditional religious language, but he wants to make it clear that we are dealing with analogous language at this level. The guiding paradigm for Aquinas are living things. Goodness, for example, is seen as bounty. God is like an agent in an action (actus), possibly more like a verb than a noun. This is hard to communicate using our language with its subject/predicate structure. If there is no distinguishing between being and activity, Aquinas says, then God more like a process, not a passive having these qualities.

Here is another example. In our ordinary language we naturally (it’s a temptation for each of us according to Kerr) think of God as a person who happens to be a father. In normal discourse about God this will occur, but this is to speak, in a different register, of the relationship and process of “fathering”. This is what we mean by “the Father”.

Aquinas’ esse (which I haven’t mentioned) is not static in the sense of being a motionless substance. For Aquinas, esse=being/existence, not unmoving, but as in “an ocean of being” derived from John of Damascus, who in medieval thought was seen as bearer of the theology of the ancient church. Juxtaposing being and becoming as dialectical opposites is the wrong move in seeking to understand Aquinas.

One final thought before we leave David Burrell’s work: in response to an objection by process theologians that classical  theism is somehow still too remote or apophatic, particularly in light of the anthropomorphic language of scriptural revelation, Burrell counters that “the God they [process theologians] propose, while inspired by the Gospels, would not need to have been the agent of such a revelation. Appearing more Christian in spirit, this God of process theology could also dispense with his self-revelation in Jesus.

Finally, what can “theology as grammar” tell us about the central rite of the Christian church – the Eucharist? To answer that question I looked at Herbert McCabe’s essay “Eucharist as Language”. McCabe, a Roman Catholic, uses the language of transubstantiation when speaking of the Eucharist. This is language that he knows is easily caricatured as a thinly veiled miracle made possible by misleading appearances hiding a chemical process by both supporters and detractors alike. McCabe assures us that this is not what Aquinas meant. In brief, we might define it as “the real presence of Christ shown by means of a sign on two levels–one present and one future.” Yet, the important fact is that, whatever language we use to describe it, whether using Aristotelian substance and accident, or a more contemporary term such as meaning, the language will not, in this particular case, be adequate. Or perhaps we could say that our language is even less adequate than is normally the case. The difference between this and other human activities is that the initiative, the ‘deeming so’, comes from God. Whatever is deemed so by God, according to McCabe, is actualized, i.e. comes into existence ex nihilo, like creation.

[T]he Eucharist is the Word of God and not the word of man. We make, as well as being made by our human language, but we do not make the meaning of the Eucharist; if it is anything of interest it is the Word of God and thus a word of power: the creative word that says “light be”—and there was light. The re-creative word says “this is my body and my blood”—and so it is. What the bread and wine have become is clearly not an icon, picture, reminder of Christ but Christ himself, and him crucified, the only one who can reconcile the opposites, who can bring life out of death. –Herbert McCabe, “Eucharist as Language”


Something happens in the Eucharist that relates to a system of meanings that is only partially present in our world – the Kingdom of God understood as the complete presence of Christ. In this world, this reality can only be manifest through signs. The sign of the elements becomes the language God speaks to us in. Using the paradoxical language of Orthodox writer, John Zizioulas, it is ‘the memory of the future’.

If I understand McCabe correctly, it might be helpful to think of the Eucharist as taking place in three tenses: past, present, and future. It participates in, has a part to play in the meaning of, a future event that is also a present reality for the church. It is also, of course, an historical memory. Accordingly, if “meaning can only be understood in terms of the larger notion of structure“, the ultimate structure of which the Eucharist has a role is the full presence of Christ/the Kingdom and the eternal love of the Trinity– that point when God will become “all in all” (as Moltmann never tires of saying).  When we use language more precisely, or better, fully, we actually don’t whittle it down to dictionary definitions, or flatten it out into a single level, but instead speak as broadly as possible. This often involves metaphor and poetry, by which we stretch our language. The medievals therefore spoke of three different levels regarding the Eucharist in order to do that:

  1. sign (sacramentum tantrum) — in this case, the visible meal.
  2. what is signified in this world (res et sacramentum) — our human word of friendship and reconciliation (the real presence of Christ).
  3. what is signified at the deepest level (res tantum) — the ultimate mystery, the agape of the Godhead.

McCabe’s point again, isn’t that we must use the language of transubstantiation, but that it is a useful (Trent would say ‘appropriate’) way of talking about such matters.