Theology 101: A Little Aquinas, Part 2

So, last time I covered Chapters 1 and 2 of the book Aquinas for Armchair Theologians.  Today I’m going to look at Chapters 3 and 4, which tackles some big subjects – evil, free will, and metaphysics.  Keep in mind that this post is an overview of a book that’s an overview itself on Aquinas’ thought!

Chapter 3: Why Is There Evil? Do Humans Have Free Will?

Why is there evil in the world?

To Aquinas, who of course accepted the Bible as true, the answer was obvious – the devil.  Aquinas wanted to show that this was also reasonable.  If God is all-powerful, and knows that suffering is going to be caused by the devil, why doesn’t God just eliminate the devil and save us all that suffering?  Doesn’t this undermine either his goodness or whether He is all-powerful?  Why did God create evil in the first place?

For his answers, Aquinas draws on Plato and Augustine.  First, God didn’t create evil – evil is “a privation of the good”, or when some of the good is removed from something.  The author uses the example of the aging of a flower.  As it dies, nothing bad is added, it just loses some of the good stuff it had.  So evil itself is not a “thing”, it’s just removing the good and this is what all of what we call evil really is.  This means that God did not create evil as part of creation and thus is not the source of evil.

The Manicheans held that the devil and God were equal co-creators, but Aquinas rejected this and said evil was not created – it is just when some of the good dissipates.  This applies to humans as well, when they do evil.  Some of their good has gone.  The same applies to the fallen angels.

This leaves the question, though, of who or what removes the good?  Aquinas struggles with the answer.  He notes that God made the world so it was not perfect and immutable, or it would have just been God, which makes no sense.  So decay was built in – but this means God created a world that would inevitably be evil, so we’re back where we started, with God as the cause of evil.  So Aquinas admits this, and turns to the task of proving that although “God is the cause of everything that happens, He is not morally responsible for the evil acts of humans and (fallen) angels.”

This brings us to the argument of…whether or not we have free will.

There are thinkers that believe we do not:  “Assume…that God exists and that He is all-knowing (or omniscient), knowing perfectly everything that happens even before it happens.” For example, when you were born.  “Medieval thinkers began to wonder if there could be true human free choice in the face of a God who possessed such omniscience.”  Could you stop doing whatever you’re doing if God already knew you weren’t going to stop doing it? Both Luther and Calvin thought there was no free will – in Calvin’s case, see predestination, and Luther wrote,

“For if we believe it to be true that God foreknows and foreordains all things; that He cannot be deceived or obstructed in His foreknowledge…and that nothing happens but at His will (which reason is compelled to grant); then on reason’s own testimony, there can be no free will in man, or angel, or in any creature.”

Aquinas, however, believed that we had to have free will.  How could God be just if He predestined some creatures to damnation for stuff they didn’t do of their own free will, but stuff they did because God willed it.  So Aquinas argued against this and for free will.

First, Aquinas argued that God is timeless.  Since He is outside of time, God sees everything all at once, and before and after have no meaning.  Therefore, he doesn’t “know” beforehand that you’re going to do something since He knows the past, present and future all at once.  Aquinas’ critics says this is avoiding the issue, since even if God is outside of time, we are in it. and the question is whether we, not God, have free will.

Aquinas has a second argument.  God, he explains, has two types of will: necessary, and contingent.  When God wills something necessarily, it will happen, period.  For example, Let there be light, and there was light.  The example the author uses is that of (anthropomorphizing) God rolling a pair of dice in a game.  God could will necessarily and the dice would roll the number He needed – but what fun is that?  Instead, God could will that He will win, contingent on the dice rolling naturally.  If God cannot roll the dice this way – the way we all do – then we are saying there is something an omnipotent God cannot do, which is a contradiction.

So, perhaps the same is true about you.  God wills certain things in your life to happen necessarily – that you’ll be born, where you will be born, and so on – and other things to happen contingently – that you’ll develop to your greatest potential, that you’ll choose to be good instead of bad, or more importantly, that you’ll believe in Jesus and accept salvation.  But he wills this contingently, not necessarily – you have the freedom to choose.  He wants it to happen, but does not force it to happen.

So, God did create the devil, which allowed the devil to choose to be bad, but God didn’t make him be bad – he chose to be bad even though this isn’t what God wanted.  God is not at fault for the evil the devil did – He willed contingently that the devil would use his free will to choose to serve God as an angel of light, but God did not will this necessarily, leaving the devil no choice but to serve God.

Renick notes that these are some of Aquinas’ more difficult concepts and even professional philosophers struggle with the arguments at times.  But it demonstrates that concepts that seem simple like God being all-powerful or us having free will can quickly become quite complex. These arguments that Aquinas makes are still the response of many Christians today, such is his influences.  But it is not just on Christians – his use of reason to test beliefs has become the standard for everyone in the western tradition.

Chapter 4: Metaphysics 101: Or Why We Are What We Are

Metaphysics “is the study of which is after or beyond the physical realm,” which Aquinas defined as “the science of being.”  He investigates what he calls the essence of a thing, what makes it what it is.  A triangle, for instance can be red, green, big, small, whatever.  But it must always have three sides, or it’s not a triangle.  The former are “accidental” attributes; three-sidedness is an “essential” attribute.  This is a simple example; far more complex is asking what is the essence of God or angels or even human beings.  What are the essential characteristics as opposed to the accidental characteristics of each?

Aquinas has defined, so far in this book, God as immutable, omnipotent, omniscient, and all-good.  Being evil, he has also said, is NOT part of being human or angel.  Evil, therefore, is an accidental attribute of humans and angels and not part of creation.  This does not mean that God made a mistake, oops, by accident and created evil – evil exists, but it is not what makes us human, what makes the creation what it is, or what makes God who He is.

So what are the essential characteristics of humans, creation, and so on?  Aquinas “argues that one crucial way of establishing the nature of an object is to determine its end or goal.”  For example, the end of a pilot is to fly a plane, and the goal of a baker is to make bread.  Aquinas says that the end goal of everything in creation is to seek God.  Trees reach toward heaven, rocks provide shelter for ants, deer provide food for predators, and so on, all of which serve God’s plan for creation.  All the creation and animals serve God by “necessity”, by instinct.  Humans, however, are different – we have the choice of serving God or not (Free will, again).  Aquinas states that we “only fulfill our nature when we seek and serve God,” but we are unique in our ability to not choose to do so.  But when we deny our nature this way, we do not find happiness and fulfillment.  We can certainly choose to not pursue God and the good, but we should, because this is our ultimate end, our goal, and it is built into the essence of our nature.

I note that Ecclesiastes 12:13 says this also –

Now all has been heard;
  here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,

for this is the duty of all mankind.

Source: Aquinas for Armchair Theologians, Timothy M. Renick, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY 2002

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