Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Thomas on God’s Incorporeality: Reason away your Imagination (SCG 20)

For Christians, it is clear from the Bible that God is not a body. John 4:24 (“God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth”) and 1 Tim. 1:17 (“Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen”) are just two of many Bible verses that clearly state this truth. But the biblical teaching, according to Thomas, is also known through reason. Chapter 20 of the Summa Contra Gentiles gives several arguments for this conclusion (for one, God’s having infinite power is incompatible with his residing in a finite body), but that’s not what interests me for this post. What’s interesting is his concluding remark about what lead so many previous thinkers and (non-Christian) theologians into thinking that God does have a body:

“The occasion of all these errors was that, in thinking of divine things, men were made the victims of their imagination, through which it is not possible to receive anything except the likeness of a body. That is why, in meditating on what is incorporeal, we must stop following the imagination.” (SCG, 1.20)

Our imaginations necessarily deal with the sensory world—try imagining something immaterial!—and are apt to err with respect to God’s being. Yet through reason we can ‘strip away’ various properties of embodied things from our thoughts about God in order to follow the Bible’s (and, if Thomas is right, reason’s) clear teaching that God has no body.

In another sense, however, God does have a body, the body of Jesus of Nazereth. God has freely become Incarnate in Jesus Christ, taking on human nature and becoming flesh, though without suffering any change. This is the great mystery of the Christian faith: our bodiless God elected embodiment for himself through his Son Jesus Christ, for the sake of his children.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Thomas on the way of Remotion (SCG 14)

In the Summa Contra Gentiles, after reviewing and vindicating Aristotle's chief arguments for the existence of God in chapter 13—and adding a few twists of his own—Thomas begins his investigation of the properties of God accessible to reason. Thus far, all he has established, following Aristotle, is that the existence of the universe requires an unmoved mover, a motionless being who is the ultimate cause of the universe. But what else could reason tell us, if in fact this unmoved mover is beyond the universe? If there is such an unmoved mover, is he not so far beyond our intellectual capacity as to render our talk about him wholly inadequate? Do we not need divine revelation to proceed any further? Thomas doesn’t think so, and has this to say about the method he will use:

“Now, in considering the divine substance, we should especially make use of the method of remotion. For, by its immensity, the divine substance surpasses every form that our intellect reaches. Thus, we are unable to apprehend it by knowing what it is. Yet we are able to have some knowledge of it by knowing what it is not. Furthermore, we approach nearer to knowledge of God according as through our intellect we are able to remove more and more things from Him. For we know each thing more perfectly the more fully we see its differences from other things; for each thing has within itself its own being, distinct from all other things.”(SCG, 1.14)

It is true that God surpasses our intellects. We cannot apprehend God in the fullness of his being; only God can understand Godself in such a way. Yet this does not mean we cannot know certain things about God, through contrasting God with things that he is not. For example:

“…if we say that God is not an accident, we thereby distinguish Him from all accidents. Then, if we add that He is not a body, we shall further distinguish Him from certain substances. And thus, proceeding in order, by such negations God will be distinguished from all that He is not. Finally, there will be a proper consideration of God’s substance when He will be known as distinct from all things. Yet, this knowledge will not be perfect, since it will not tell us what God is in Himself.” (SCG, 1.14)

This is quite different from crass negative theologies, which simply say that because God exceeds all of our concepts, we cannot know anything about God at all, or say anything true about God. For Thomas, we can know things about God through reason alone, but the method used to acquire such knowledge is fundamentally negative. The aforementioned example is illustrative: reason can establish that God does not have a body (if the previous arguments relating to the impossibility of an infinite regress of time succeed, as well as the necessity that all bodies exist in time); and from such knowledge can assert, positively, that God is immaterial. Knowing exactly what God’s immateriality is, aside from the absence of matter, is impossible. Yet we can know more and more about God’s immateriality the more we negate: Thomas will go on to argue that it also involves the absence of composition, and thus that God’s immateriality is utterly simple. The rest of Book 1 goes on to detail many more things reason can establish about God through the via negativa.

Of course, the arguments can succeed or fail; Thomas may or may not be right about this point or that. What is clear, however, at the very least, is that negative way is a path to knowledge of God, not some overly humble apophaticism that denies the truth of any positive affirmations about God.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Narrator of Demons on Writers

“Never before had she seen such writers. They were impossibly vain, but quite openly so, as if thereby fulfilling a duty. Some (though by no means all) even came drunk, but it was as if they perceived some special, just-yesterday-discovered beauty in it. They were all proud of something to the point of strangeness. It was written on all their faces that they had just discovered some extremely important secret. They were abusive, and considered it to their credit. It was rather difficult to find out exactly what they had written, but there were critics, novelists, playwrights, satirists, exposers among them.” (Demons, p. 22. Trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky)

Dostoevsky’s narrator in Demons is hilarious, despite his claim to objectivity: “as a chronicler, I limit myself simply to presenting events in an exact way, exactly as they occurred.” Then again, maybe his humor is objective. Maybe the writers just were exactly as he described them…

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Thomas Defeats Molinism

“And so others said that merits following the effect of predestination are the reason of predestination; giving us to understand that God gives grace to a person, and pre-ordains that He will give it, because He knows beforehand that He will make good use of that grace, as if a king were to give a horse to a soldier because he knows he will make good use of it. But these seem to have drawn a distinction between that which flows from grace, and that which flows from free will, as if the same thing cannot come from both. It is, however, manifest that what is of grace is the effect of predestination, since it is contained in the notion of predestination. Therefore, if anything else in us be the reason of predestination, it will be outside the effect of predestination.” (Summa Theologica, I.23.5)

Obviously contemporary Molinists know Thomas quite well, and the issue is a difficult one that faithful Christians will continue to disagree on. Nevertheless, it seems that this passage gets to the heart of the issue: is grace the effect of God’s predestination, such that our free decision to embrace God has its ultimate cause in Godself, or is it something we must “make use of” in order to be saved?

Thomas on knowledge of God: God’s way-of-being determines the way in which we can know God

“That there are certain truths about God that totally surpass man’s ability appears with the greatest evidence. Since, indeed, the principle of all knowledge that the reason perceives about some thing is the understanding of the very substance of that being (for according to Aristotle “what a thing is” is the principle demonstration), it is necessary that the way in which we understand the substance of a thing determines the way in which we know what belongs to it. Hence, if the human intellect comprehends the substance of some thing, for example, that of a stone or of a triange, no intelligible characteristic belonging to that thing surpasses the grasp of human reason. But this does not happen to us in the case of God. For the human intellect is not able to reach a comprehension of the divine substance through its natural power.” (Summa Contra Gentiles, I.3)

We don’t come to know God like we come to know other things, because the substance of a thing determines the way in which we can know it. If God’s substance is unlike created things, which the intellect only knows in part, how much less can we comprehend God’s substance? The only being who can comprehend God’s substance is God.

(Incidentally, ontotheological skepticism toward Thomas is completely unwarranted here, as I’m inclined to think it always is with him. God “has” a substance, but his substance is no different than his own self. For Thomas, it seems to me, denying that God has a substance—a reality, or a ‘that-which-God-is’—would be tantamount to denying that God exists. And denying that God exists while remaining a Christian in the name of piety is silly.)

Having spent the last year reading a lot of Barth and talking to a lot of Barthians who are skeptical of negative theology (saying things like “of course we know God’s essence, it is found in Jesus Christ,” etc. etc.), I’m interested to see the way in which negative knowledge of God actually functions in the rest of SCG. I suspect it is designed precisely to ensure the Christian’s assurance of her relationship with the living Jesus Christ. Whether it “works” is another question, of course, but I am optimistic, as the first three chapters of SCG have been great.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Augustine on the Ineffability of the Trinity

After his distinction between things and signs in 1.2 and his discussion of enjoyment and use in 1.3, Augustine has this to say about the Trinity:

“The things therefore that are to be enjoyed are the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, in fact the Trinity, one supreme thing, and one which is shared in common by all who enjoy it; if, that is to say, it is a thing, and not the cause of all things; if indeed it is a cause. It is not easy, after all, to find any name that will really fit such transcendent majesty. In fact it is better just to say that this Trinity is the one God from whom are all things, through whom all things, in whom all things (Rom 11:36). Thus Father and Son and Holy Spirit are each one of them singly God and all together one God; and each one of them singly is the complete divine substance, and all together are one substance…” (Augustine, Teaching Christianity, I.5)

And this to say on the ineffability of the Trinity:

“Have I said anything, solemnly uttered anything that is worthy of God? On the contrary, all I feel I have done is to wish to say something; but if I have said anything, it is not what I wished to say. How do I know this? I know it because God is inexpressible; and if what has been said by me were inexpressible, it would not have been said. And from this it follows that God is not to be called inexpressible, because when even this is said about him, something is being expressed. And we are involved in heaven knows what kind of battle of words, since on the one hand what cannot be said is inexpressible, and on the other what can even be called inexpressible is thereby shown to be not inexpressible. ” (Augustine, Teaching Christianity, I.6)

Despite the inadequacy of our language, God accepts our praise:

“And yet, while nothing really worthy of God can be said about him, he has accepted the homage of human voices, and has wished us to rejoice in praising him with our words. That in fact is what is meant by calling him God. Not, of course, that with the sound made by this one syllable any knowledge of him is achieved; but still, all those who know the English language are moved, when this sound reaches their ears, to reflecting upon some most exalted and immortal nature.” (Augustine, Teaching Christianity, I.6)

I find this section very interesting in light of my (limited) knowledge of the contemporary discussion regarding theology of language. Augustine seems to avoid at least two potential problems: (1) an overemphasis on God’s transcendence, as found in thinkers like Tillich (rightly criticized for vicious circularity), and (2) an underemphasis on language’s ability to speak of God, as found—if I’ve understood him through J√ľngel correctly—in Barth.

Regarding (1): The proposition ‘nothing we say about God applies to God’ is self-refuting. For if it is true, it is false; and if it is false, it is false. For what if it is true? Then it is true that one thing we say about God does apply to God; namely, that God is a God of whom nothing can be said. In that case, the proposition is false. I think Plantinga charges Tillich with this sort of vicious circularity somewhere in Does God Have a Nature? If he represents Tillich’s views accurately, Plantinga is surely right. And the same critique would apply to a number of similar views (‘God is infinitely transcendent, and cannot be brought to speech’, ‘none of our concepts apply to God’, etc.). Augustine does not fall into this trap. Whatever God’s ineffability consists in, it is not some extreme transcendence that involves the utter impossibility of human speech being about God.

Regarding (2): It seems that Barth argues that language in itself has no capacity to be about God; but rather, that language is only about God on the basis of God’s free self-disclosure in Jesus Christ. This is not self-refuting like (1), but it is a bit odd. For what is language ‘in itself’? Suppose a Muslim says, “God is good.” Barth (or some Barthians I’ve talked to, at any rate) would argue that this abstract goodness, disconnected as it is from God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ, is not true. But the proposition “God is good” seems to be true regardless of who utters it. Hence, I’m inclined to be a bit skeptical toward this view. Augustine’s view has the advantage of avoiding such oddness, insofar as he can happily acknowledge that in one sense, philosophers and Muslims can speak truly regarding God: if God is good, than it is true that God is good, and one who says so speaks truly. Average people know that the word “God” relates to some “exalted and immortal nature,” even though they may have no personal knowledge of God, no relationship. (This is what I take Augustine’s denial of “knowledge” to relate to: “Not, of course, that with the sound made by this one syllable any knowledge of him is achieved…”) Thus, language about God can be true regardless of who speaks it.

Most importantly, Augustine’s teaching here has the humility lying behind (1) and (2): God is utterly unlike anything in the created universe, and our speech can never exhaust his being. That we can praise God with the words from our mouths is God’s gift to us, a gift for which we can never be thankful enough.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Welcome to theonoob! I am a theological noob and this blog will primarily be devoted to theo-blogging, with some literature and philosophy thrown in the mix.