Prayers of John Duns Scotus in de Primo Principio

The Church has a great treasure in the prayers of its theologians both from the East and West. Those that often come to mind are The Confessions of St. Augustine, the Prologion of St. Anselm or the “O, Lord, deprive me not…” of St. John Chrysostom. We can gain more than we think from revisiting these prayers. There are some points of disagreement with various theologians, such as the Scotus defense of the Immaculate Conception. Yet, in the spirit of catholicity we can have a meeting of heart and mind with all Christians on essential doctrine, on unity in what is de Fide. These prayers are not inspired as is Holy Scripture, but they can be inspiring. 

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The prayers of St. John Duns Scotus found throughout his Tractus de Primo Principio should be of continued interest for how they blend with his erudite reasonings on the existence of God. Though de Primo is a short work, in typical Scotist form it has a tight argument. Yet, by the intermingling of prayers it is clear that Scotus had in mind more than the making of proofs.  These prayers are immediately useful for several reasons:

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  • The prayers of Scotus in de Primo seem to be as one prayer interrupted by theological contemplation. He begins with a prayer and ends with prayer such that the whole treatise is offered as a gift of contemplation to The Almighty. 

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  • Though the primary purpose of these prayers may not be to front the basic principles of classical theism, they do hold those ageless principles in a worshipful form. 

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  • These prayers show that contemplating the nature of God’s being is just as worthy an exercise as praying for food or health, if not more so.

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  • These prayers are not born of mere philosophical contemplation, but from meditating on Scripture. I include in the opening prayer the Latin text from chapter 1. This shows a deliberate expression by Scotus to anchor his whole treatise in the declaration of God’s name, Yahweh. Scotus quotes from Exodus 3:14 where God spoke his unique name to Moses. 

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For ease of doing just that, contemplation on God in prayer, I have assembled these prayers in one place. I’ve added paragraphing to the text for a pace of reading with pauses. Also the prayers are listed with references if you should like to find them in a copy of de Primo

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Prayers of John Duns Scotus in Tractatus de Primo Principio (Treatise on God as the First Principle)

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Chapter 1

“1:2 O Lord our God, true teacher that you are, when Moses your servant asked you for your name that he might proclaim it to the children of Israel, you, knowing what the mind of mortals could grasp of you replied: “I am who am,” thus disclosing your blessed name. You are truly what it means to be, you are the whole of what it means to exist. This, if it be possible for me, I should like to know by way of demonstration. Help me then, O Lord, as I investigate how much our natural reason can learn about that true being which you are if we begin with the being which you have predicated of yourself.”

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Domine deus noster, Moysi servo tuo de tuo nomine filis Israel proponendo a te doctore verissimo sciscitanti, sciens quid posset de ce concipere intellectus mortalium nomen tuum benedictum reserans respondisti: Ego sum qui sum [Exodus 3:14], Tu es verum esse, tu es totum esse. Hoc [alt: credo, hoc] si mihi esset possibile, scire vellem. Adiuva me, Domine, inquirentem ad quantam cognitionem de vero esse, quod tu es, possit pertingere nostra ratio naturalis ab ente, quod de te praedicasci, inchoando.

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Chapter 2

“2:2 When the venerable doctor Augustine, writing about your triune self, declared (in the first book On the Trinity): ‘Nothing whatever begets itself,’ you, O Lord our God, were his infallible teacher. Have You not impressed upon us with equal certitude this similar truth? (First conclusion) Nothing whatever is essentially ordered to itself… 

“2:8 Under your guidance, O God, we shall compare the aforesaid six orders with one another beginning with the four orders of cause to what is caused.”

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Chapter 3

“3:2 O Lord, our God, you have proclaimed yourself to be the first and last. Teach your servant to show by reason what he holds with faith most certain, that you are the most eminent, the first efficient cause and the last end.”

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Chapter 4

“4:2 O Lord, our God, if You would grant me that favor, I would like to show somehow those perfections which I do not doubt are in your unique and truly first nature. I believe that you are simple, infinite, wise, and endowed with a will. And as I wish to avoid a circle in the proofs, I shall begin with certain conclusions about simplicity which can be proved at the outset. The other remarks about simplicity I shall defer until we come to the proper place where they can be proved.”

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“4:84 O Lord, our God, catholics can infer most of the perfections which philosophers knew of you from what has been said. You are the first efficient cause, the ultimate end, supreme in perfection, transcending all things. You are uncaused in any way and therefore incapable of becoming or perishing; indeed it is simply impossible that You should not exist for of yourself you are necessary being.

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“You are therefore eternal, because the span of your existence is without limit and you experience it all at once for it cannot be strung out in a succession of events. For there can be no succession save in what is being continually caused or at least in what is dependent for its existence upon another, and this dependence is a far cry from what has necessary being of itself. You live a most noble life, because you are understanding and volition. You are happy, indeed you are by nature happiness, because you are in possession of yourself. You are the clear vision of yourself and the most joyful love, and although you are most self−sufficient and happy in yourself alone, You still understand in a single act everything that can be known.

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“At one and the same time you possess the power to freely and contingently will each thing that can be caused and by willing it through your volition to cause it to be. Most truly then you are of infinite power. You are incomprehensible, infinite, for nothing omniscient or of infinite power is finite, nor supreme among beings. Neither is the ultimate end, nor what exists of itself in all simplicity, something finite. You are the ultimate in simplicity, having no really distinct parts, or no realities in your essence which are not really the same. In you no quantity, no accident can be found. and therefore you are incapable of accidental change, even as I have already expressed, You are in essence immutable. You alone are simply perfect, not just a perfect angel, or a perfect body, but a perfect being, lacking no entity it is possible for anything to have.

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“Nothing can formally possess every entity but every entity can exist in something either formally or eminently, as it does in you, O God who are supreme among beings, the only one of them who is infinite. Communicating the rays of your goodness most liberally, you are boundless good, to whom as the most lovable thing of all every single being in its own way comes back to you as to its ultimate end.  

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“4.85 You alone are the first truth. Indeed, the false is not what it seems to be. Hence something besides itself is the basis for what it appears to be, for were its nature alone the basis, it would appear to be what it really is. But for you there is no other ground or basis for what appears, because in your essence which is first apparent to yourself all things appear, and by that very fact nothing subsequent is the basis for what appears to You.

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“In that essence, I say, whatever can be known in all the fullness of its meaning is present to your intellect. You are then truth in all its splendor, infallible truth, comprehending every intelligible truth with certainty. For the other things apparent to you do not seem to exist in you in such a way that they deceive you simply because they appear in you. For the ground or reason for the appearance does not prevent the proper meaning of what it reveals from appearing to Your intellect as is the case with our visual deceptions, when the appearance of something else prevents us from seeing what is really there. This is not so in your intellect; quite the contrary, so perfect in its clarity is the vision of your essence that whatever is displayed therein appears to you in all its proper meaning.

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“For my purposes there is no need to treat at greater length the subject of your truth or of the ideas in you. Much indeed has been said about the ideas, but even were it never said, indeed, were the ideas never mentioned, no less will be known of your perfection. This is clear, because your essence is the perfect ground for knowing each and every thing that can be known to the extent that it can be known. He who wishes may call this an idea, but here I do not care to dwell further upon this Greek and Platonic word.  

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“4.86 Besides the aforesaid points which the philosophers have affirmed of you, catholics often praise you as omnipotent, immense, omnipresent, just yet merciful, provident of all creatures but looking after intellectual ones in a special way, but these matters are deferred to the next tract.

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In this first treatise I have tried to show how the metaphysical attributes affirmed of you can be inferred in some way by natural reason. In the tract which follows, those shall be set forth that are the subject of belief, wherein reason is held captive—yet to catholics, the latter are the more certain since they rest firmly upon your own most solid truth and not upon our intellect which is blind and weak in many things.      

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“4.87 But there is one thing more that I include here which I do not think that reason is unable to prove, and which will provide the finishing touch to this little work, namely (Eleventh conclusion) you are one God, than whom there is no other as you have declared through the Prophet.

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“4.94 O Lord our God! You are one in nature. You are one in number. Truly have you said that besides you there is no God. For though many may be called gods or thought to be gods, you alone are by nature God. You’re are the true God from whom, in whom and through whom all things are; You are blessed forever.

Amen!”
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