The Un-Normed Norm and the Un-Measured Measure

Sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestant doctors often described Holy Scripture as the norma normans non normata, or “the norming norm that is not itself normed.” This means that Scripture, being the Word of God, is the standard which regulates all things, but it itself is not regulated by anything. While reading some things on Aquinas today, I ran across the article Veritas Sequitur Esse (“Truth Follows Being”). In it appears this provocative description of Thomas’ view of truth:

Thomas tells us to look at each concrete thing, as “inter duos intellectus constituta” – set between two intellects. One is the Intellect of the Creator, the other is the intellect of man. The Intellect of the Creator is the measurer (mensurans) in relation to things; and so it defines and establishes truth. The divine Intellect is not measured in itself (non mensuratum), nor is it determined by anything else. It is the source of the existence of each and every things and thus also the source of every truth. The Creator is He who define and assigns truth to things, somewhat like an artist to his works. Thus, each and every thing that is called to existence realizes in itself a particular truth that expresses the idea of the Creator.

In turn, the natural thing is both “measured and giving measure”: it is defined with respect to its truth, but it also defines truth. This means that in things that an idea has been composed together with their existence, that each existing thing realizes an idea or thought within itself. The second intellect, the intellect of man, is merely that which is “measured”, but does not itself provide the measure in relation to natural things. The human intellect is mensuratus non mensurans, and truth is found in the human intellect in a secondary or derivative way.

There seems to me to be a connection between describing truth as the mensura non mensuratum (“the measure not itself measured”) and describing Holy Scripture as the norma normans non normata (“the norming norm not itself normed”). Likewise surely there is a connection between describing the mind of God as the mensurans (“the measuring thing”) and the mind of man as the mensuratus non mensurans (“the measured thing not itself measuring things”). I’m not sure how to flesh it out at present, but it’s fascinating nevertheless. Consider the statement toward the end of the article that “Thus the truth that is given to man is not merely derived from cognition or thought, as is commonly accepted today, but together with things it is given to man.” Heresy on Cartesian rationalist terms, but perhaps on more Christian terms a view which frees not only truth but the Scriptures as well from slavery to the autonomous human consciousness self-isolated by its morbid fascination with what it self-referentially defines as “clear and distinct things.”

[Comments are open on this post.]

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2 Responses to The Un-Normed Norm and the Un-Measured Measure

  1. Bret Saunders says:

    Thanks Tim. However, I wonder if Aquinas is working from a Greek view of truth, whereby “things themselves” exist according to an essence that “measures” or imprints itself on the human mind. Aquinas, after Augustine, will only add that these essences (rationes or ideae aeternae) exist par excellence in the mind of God. Thus, as you say, truth “meaures” us insofar as we appropriate or receive it (ie, the soul is the forma formarum, etc). Truth/knowledge is primarily ontological (Aquinas: “truth is convertible with being”) and passive (the agent intellect notwithstanding). By contrast, what if the ‘biblical’ view of truth were more (foundationally) ethical and active? Look at how Psalms 20-40 speaks of truth (emeth) in terms of “walking in the paths of truth.” Truth in Scripture is not thought primarily in epistemological terms but in terms of covenant faithfulness.

    Furthermore, following Tolkien (“subcreation”) and perhaps the Romantics, what if the moderns are correct that the human relation to truth is as much constitutive as receptive? What if the Greeks and the medievals thought of man’s image too much as that of a purely noetic, contemplative first mover, thereby neglecting his effective, creative, even “measuring” potential?

  2. Tim Enloe says:

    Good questions and observations, Bret. I guess I’d wonder whether we have to see the Greeks as entirely wrong. Although Scripture is the un-normed norming norm, it isn’t an intellectual manual. Is it? I agree that we are not purely noetic, contemplative beings, and I do think the denigration of the active life as “vulgar” in the Greeks is unhealthy and unbiblical. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem right to me, somehow, to posit an absolute dichotomy between “the biblical idea of truth” and “the Greek idea of truth.” We know the Greeks weren’t wrong about everything. Perhaps despite their errors they had a few good insights about the contemplative activity?

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