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Theological Atomism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2024

William Charlton*
Yearhaugh Farm, West Woodburn Hexham, United Kingdom, NE48 2TU, UK


By ‘atomism’ I mean the idea, applicable in various fields, that explanation proceeds from small to large and part to whole. A theological atomist would see the salvation of mankind as the sum of the salvations of individuals and try to understand the Incarnation, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Ascension as successive episodes each making its own separate contribution. I argue that we are essentially social beings, and infer that God can communicate with us, and we can be united with him, only as forming a society. More controversially, I suggest that the Son of God became incarnate primarily in a society, and saved it by turning it into a single supernatural organism, living with divine life.

Original Article
Copyright © 2013 The Author. New Blackfriars © 2013 The Dominican Council. Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd. 2014

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1 A System of Logic, 6.7.1.

2 A System of Logic 6.9.1.

3 Principles of Mathematics Ch. 44 s. 447; Russell's emphasis.

4 Unlike Aristotle's theologia: see Metaphysics E 1026a18–21; De Anima 1 402b2–8.

5 Psalms 80. 8–9, cf. Isaiah 5. 1–2. Ezekiel also uses the images of cultivation and a vine, (17. 3–10, 22–4; 19. 10–14,) see below.

6 E.g. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1 qq. 94–5; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church ss. 374–6

7 In The Fall and the Ascent of Man, (University Press of America, 2012) Joseph Fitzpatrick argues persuasively for an interpretation of this chapter alternative to Augustine's: that it depicts the passage of our species to moral maturity.

8 The Religion of Jesus the Jew, (London: SCM Press, 1993) p. 123Google Scholar. Vermes quotes Isaiah 49.23 and might have added Psalm 72. 9–10 and Isaiah 54. 2–3 and 60. 1–12.

9 Metaphysics N 1090b20.

10 Catechism of the Catholic Church, s. 613.

11 Catechism of the Catholic Church, s. 659.

12 Ss. 1997, 2000 (the Catechism's emphasis). Similarly the older The Teaching of the Catholic Church, arranged and edited by George D. Smith, (London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1952,) p. 66:’The life which we receive in virtue of our incorporation into Christ is none other than a participation in the life of God which, in its inceptive state during our earthly pilgrimage, is sanctifying grace; in its perfect and consummated state, is the glory of the Beatific Vision’(my emphasis.) We receive this grace, it is said, at baptism.

13 The Physical, the Natural and the Supernatural, (London: Sheed and Ward, 1998), Ch. 8.

14 Catechism of the Catholic Church, s. 464.

15 The Eucharistic Presence’, New Blackfriars, Vol.82 no. 962 (April 2001) pp. 1610–74Google Scholar; Being Reasonable About Religion, (Aldershot, Ashgate 2006), Chs. 18–20Google Scholar

16 So, e.g., Rm 8. 1–17. Similarly the third Preface for the feast of the Nativity says that it is through the Incarnation that we made eternal (nos quoque, mirando consortio, reddit aeternos). It must be acknowledged, however, that according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, s. 366, ‘every spiritual soul is created immediately by God’ and ‘is immortal’. If that is right, salvation is not from death but only from sin and perhaps Hell: either every human being after death shares in God's eternal life, or people can continue to exist after death without sharing in it. Severed branches of the vine burn, it has been suggested to me privately by P.T. Geach, not atemporally but for unending time.

17 Politics 2 1261a10–22.