This is the last of the series on Aquinas. I hope this was helpful; I found it fascinating and I learned a lot about everything from logic to God to how my faith can be applied to many areas of life. Any requests for the next theologian?
Let’s get started. Today we’ll cover politics and Renick’s summary.
Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, wrote, “How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
The question is, “Can it ever be right to disobey the laws of the state? Is breaking the law permissible if the laws themselves are unjust?” Based on Paul’s thoughts in Romans 13 as well as Augustine’s in The City of God, until Aquinas, most Christians said no. Indeed, Augustine wrote, “Thus it happens, but not without God’s providence, that some are endowed with kingdoms and others made subject to kings.” Since God made them king, your are disobeying God if you disobey the king. If this wwere the case, revolution and civil disobedience would be morally wrong.
However, Aquinas, in his book On Princely Government, says that just as all people do, kings and rulers have the end of pursuing the good – God. If they don’t, by definition they are no longer the king or state since the definition of these is to pursue justice and the good.
Referencing Aristotle, Aquinas discusses six different forms of government. They are ranked by how closely they achieve the end of pursuing the good and justice.
Second is aristocracy, which is “rule by a few individuals who all are seeking the common good – God.” This is second because it is not as efficient as a monarchy – each of the individuals may have different goals in mind for the common good and so debate and compromise lower efficiency.
Next is polity – “rule by the many.” Here again, all have the best for society in mind, but since there are many of them, it is even more inefficient than aristocracy.
Fourth is democracy, which is “the least unjust of the unjust forms of government.” Why unjust? Because unlike a polity, instead of having the common good as a goal, the many seek self-gain instead. They are voting in their own self-interest rather than society’s. Democracy is the least bad, though, because the endless debate and compromise mean very little bad gets done. Aquinas was not far from the truth – the American government was set up with checks and balances to help prevent moving too quickly toward unjust ends.
Next on the list is Oligarchy, or rule by a few individuals with selfish motives. It is worse than democracy because it is more efficient at pursuing unjust ends.
Finally, the worst form of government is tyranny. This is basically a king that pursues selfish ends. It is very efficient at pursuing the bad, which is why it is the worst of all.
This seems contradictory – rule by a single individual is both the best and worst form of government! Aquinas believes in taking the chance because he feels that humans are basically “good enough to rule justly,” and most people are good, so most of the time the ruler will be good. also, Good is stronger than evil – there “is only one ultimate good (God) yet as many evils as there are individual goals and ends. God and its supporters are unified; evil tends to divide.” So, good usually beats evil. This, he reasons, is why it is best to support government by one person and take the chance they could be a tyrant. He would later qualify this view in Summa Theologica,” saying that a mixed form of government, with an elected monarch, an elected aristocracy, and a polity that would check them and elect them, is best. The Founding Fathers, of course, used Aquinas as one of their inspirations when drafting the Constitution, using checks and balances on each branch of government. Regarding a tri-partite government, Aquinas writes, “Such is the best government, formed by a good mixture of kingship, in the sense that one person is the chief, and aristocracy, in the sense that many men rule according to virtue, and polity (that is, the power of the people), in the sense that leaders can be elected from among the populace, and further, the choice of the rule belongs to the people.”
This idea of Aquinas’s is not that of divine right of kings. The king in Aquinas’s system gets the right to govern from the people and must be obeyed only if he pursues God. If not, he’s not really a king anyway; instead, he’s a tyrant. A tyrant need not be obeyed, nor an oligarchy, nor a democracy – when they are unjust. You must do what is right, even if the government says to do something wrong. However, there are times an unjust government should receive obedience, because “rebellion is often more costly than bearing up under tyranny.”
You will naturally obey a just government if you are a just person – it comes, wait for it, naturally. And only unjust laws will be hard for you to obey because you are naturally just. An unjust law is not a law because the essence of a law, Aquinas writes, is to be “an ordinance of reason directed to the common good.” It is morally required to disobey an unjust law.
This, Renick says, was an extraordinary thing for Aquinas to write, because at that time, with belief in the divine right of kings, he stated that the people needed to use their reason and intellect to decide if the ruler was right or wrong. Indeed, he wrote, “Nor should the community be accused of disloyalty for deposing a tyrant, even after a previous promise of constant fealty, for the tyrant lays himself open to such treatment by his failure to discharge the duties of his office as governor of the community, and in consequence his subjects are no longer bound by their oath to him.”
Thus it was that Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, wrote, “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of [its] ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government,” and King wrote, “We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything…the freedom fighters did…was ‘illegal.” For these two and Aquinas, “the ‘law ‘ is by definition that which is just. An unjust law is no law at all. The concept,” Renick concludes, “is a simple one; the implications are, quite literally, revolutionary.”
Aquinas’s ideas have become mainstream, but their attribution has been lost. Renick points out that exalting reason, questioning authority, human rights, natural law, war codes, intentionality in crimes, and double effect are all Thomist ideas. Reading Aquinas, though is difficult because his works are usually quite long, and there are over 60 of them. In the Summa itself, there are 38 treatises, divided into 3.120 articles – nearly 10,000 objections posed and answered (the Summa is written in a question and answer format).
Aquinas starts each case “with a series of objections to the answer he will eventually adopt to the question.” The objections are not Aquinas’s beliefs. Next comes a series of “on the contraries”, where Aquinas “cites authors who have taken up the opposite position on the same question.” Finally, Aquinas’s answer begins with “I answer that…” where he states his own beliefs. He then concludes with “replies to objections,” where he deals with each of the objections brought up one by one.
He quoted a wide range of people; he dealt with a wide range of issues, including “the nature of the incarnation and the significance of baptism…the centrality of the virtues and the problem with lying…what constitutes a habit and when does fear cause human decisions to become less than voluntary,” and many more.
Aquinas writes, “The human mind can understand truth only by thinking.” God made us thinkers, it is a sin to not use this ability. Renick concludes, “The concept is simple; the implications are extraordinary.”
Last time we looked at Aquinas’ thoughts on law and morality, as well as sex. Today, we’re going to look at War, including Jus ad Bellum and Jus ad Bello, and how Aquinas looked at women, as well as what he night have though of some of today’s controversial issues.
In this chapter, Renick discusses Jus ad Bellum, Jus in Bello, and double effect. He notes that in 1991, before Gulf War I, George Bush (41) stated the reasons for going to war against Iraq (which at the time had occupied Kuwait). These reasons described why he felt it was a just war. For it to be so, it needed a just cause, to be declared by a legitimate authority, to be a last resort, and to have a just intent. Bush listed reasons why each of these criteria was satisfied.
A war, while seemingly as far from moral as it can get, can be just according to international law, if it follows the rules Bush cited in his speech. If this is thought to be an oxymoron, it can be compared to the actions the Nazis in World War II, or perhaps the Khmer Rouge, among others. No, “morality,” Renick writes, “places important restraints on actions even during the heat of combat.” Aquinas played a major role in codifying this.
Christians have had to reason about just war since the 4th Century, when they went from being a persecuted group to the official religion of the Roman Empire. Before that, they considered themselves pacifists. After, they asked themselves if standing by while innocent people were slaughtered was in line with loving your neighbor – obviously, history shows they decided that intervening was the right thing to do.
Augustine was one of the first to give an affirmative and “taught that it was acceptable, even mandatory, for Christians to use violence – if they did so in a limited fashion and in order to protect the innocent.” As a matter of fact it was Augustine that first coined the term “Just war”. Eight centuries later, Aquinas developed this concept to the form we see today.
He deals first with Jus ad bellum – Latin for “right or justice (at the time of) war.” This describes the “criteria that must be met before one can rightfully go to war.” There are three, all of which must be met in order to begin hostilities:
Next, he dealt with jus in bello, or “right/justice in war” – what you can do during conflicts. It is here that Aquinas introduces the concept of “double effect”. Renick writes, “Double effect is a moral concept that has found its way into our contemporary civil and criminal legal codes, has emerged as a cornerstone of medical ethics, and has become a sticking point in the modern abortion debate. It also establishes the basic standard for determining how one must treat noncombatants in times of war.”
Writes Aquinas: “Nothing hinders one act from having two effects.” One effect can be good and the other bad – what does one do in this situation? A simple example in going to the dentist. To fix your bad tooth she must cause you pain in the short term. A bigger example is saving the baby or saving the pregnant mother, or bombing a chemical factory next to a school.
Historically, there are Christians that followed the principle of do no harm. This Aquinas found to be impractical – consider the dentist case. If she does no harm and refuses to pull your tooth, you will end up worse off than if she in the short term causes you pain. Aquinas then says, if one effect is intended “while the other is beside the intention…Moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental.” The dentist intends good – fixing your tooth – and not evil (the pain of the drilling). However, if she is sadistic and causes you pain on purpose, then her intent is wrong, and the act is wrong. The result does not justify the intent. This can also be seen in our modern concept of accidental manslaughter – your intent was not to kill anyone, versus 1st degree murder, where your intent certainly was to kill someone.
This is also applied to jus in bello – soldiers should never intend to kill civilians or innocents. They may die by accident, but this is not the same as targeting them. The example of the munitions factory by the school shows that if you bomb the factory and the school is destroyed, your intent was to stop the enemiy’s war production, not to kill children. This is euphemistically termed collateral damage. However, if you bomb the school to demoralize the enemy, your intent is wrong.
But, there is another dimension to double effect – the good effect must outweigh the accidental effect. Aquinas: “And yet, proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end.” If you kill hundreds of schoolchildren just to take out an enemy tank, for example, your intent was good, but the bad side was way out of proportion to what you achieved. So, you must ask:
The answer to both must be yes.
Catholics (macengr – and most of the rest of us) see abortion as not meeting the standards of the double effect philosophy. The end is evil – an innocent person dies, and the intent is evil – the mother doesn’t want to bear the child. Renick then attempts to justify a certain case of abortion using Aquinas’s arguments.
This case is when the mother’s life is threatened, for example when the egg implants in the fallopian tube. He feels that Aquinas would have said that it is morally permissible to remove the baby. The good end is saving the mother’s life; the bad end is that the baby dies. But here, says Renick, the intent is good – to save the mother’s life, and not to kill the baby. The death of the baby, per the discussion above, is accidental, not intentional, and who knows, by some miracle the baby could live…Also, if nothing is done, both the mother and baby die, and if you remove the baby, only one dies, so the result is better than choosing not to do anything at all (the result is proportionate to the harm done). Thus, Aquinas, Renick thinks, would “approve” of this abortion.
(macengr – I totally do not agree with this argument, especially because Renick uses zygote instead of baby to make his argument more convincing to the reader.)
So Aquinas, Renick thinks, is very much a modern thinker and was ahead of his time. But there is always a catch, and Renick points out that Aquinas’ view on women were very much a product of the times, and illustrates, to Renick, a drawback of the natural law approach.
Here, Aquinas felt that women are men’s helpers by nature, and that their primary usefulness is that of childbearing. He writes, “It was necessary for woman to be made as a helper to man; not, indeed, helpmate in other works, as some say, since man can be more efficiently helped by another man in other works; but as a helper in generation.” Men are therefore more useful when it comes to intellectual conversation or building things, and women are bad at these by nature. Women, Renick claims that Aquinas says, are a pale imitation of a man. Although both genders are needed to reproduce – here Renick quotes Aquinas again: “man is yet further ordered to a still nobler vital action, and that is intellectual operation.”
Thus, Aquinas says, there is a natural hierarchy between men and women, and the male should always be in charge. He writes, “For good order would have been wanting if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves. So by such a kind of subjection woman is naturally subject to man, because in man the discretion of reason predominates.” This inequality between men and women was the reason for Eve’s sin, not the result. Aquinas is arguing that the essence of woman is to be subject to man – it’s part of God’s plan. The sin in the garden was not only humans disobeying God’s command not to eat the fruit, but also of woman usurping the man’s authority.
Women are also, Aquinas says, only the container that human life is born in and do not contribute to their characteristics (no genetic material from the mother). Aquinas’s views on women would go on to become very influential; although they were really a reflection of his times. However, that men were superior to women was seen, after Aquinas, as a cornerstone of the natural law and science and it was felt to be a rational fact, even apart from the religious context.
So, Renick says, we must be careful when we use natural law, because there is a “need to distinguish between what is and what should be.” Aquinas lived in a monastery and avoided women and had little experience with them throughout his life, spending his time in primarily male environments from the time he was five years old. At the time he lived (the 1200s) women were seen as inferior, were subject to men, and were rarely educated. Of course, Renick says, Aquinas would think this was the natural order of things.
However, Renick says, “using the natural law demands that we do more than report on the way things are.” Just because murder occurs all the time – and scientists believes violence may have a genetic component – doesn’t mean it is natural. “What is is not always what should be.” (macengr – normative vs. positive). So just because women were subject to men at the time, doesn’t mean they were supposed to be that way. Renick feels that “Aquinas should have known better.” Still, this is a common mistake and it is very difficult to know the difference. Thus we must be very careful in thinking about it.
One can, Renick writes, use the natural law approach “to overcome the shackles of tradition…Aquinas’s theories can be the source of liberating justice. They allow one to say, ‘Sure, things have always been done this way, but nature (and God) demand that we do otherwise.'” And often Aquinas did use natural law to prove this and make “great strides in human justice.” But the danger is this: “Rather than catching a glimpse of the ways of God and nature, we may be holding a mirror up to ourselves. We may be confusing what is natural for what is familiar and comfortable” – and the latter may be unjust.
That’s enough for today. See you next time!
Last time we looked at Aquinas’ explanation of the problem of evil, Free Will, and Metaphysics. Continuing on, today we’ll see his thoughts on law and morality, as well as… sex (eek!).
Chapter 5: Law and Morality
“Men can fashion patterns of thought, but God himself arranged the natural order.“–Aquinas
As noted, God has a plan for everything – every single thing – in creation. Aquinas wrote, “The whole community of the Universe is governed by divine reason.” This plan, the ends that all things are created for, Aquinas calls “the eternal law.” This definition contains not only the moral law (the 10 commandments, etc.) but the physical law as well (physics, thermodynamics, and so on) as well as others. Only God can know the whole of the eternal law. A law is “only binding on an entity when the law is made known to that object.” Aquinas defines the portion of the eternal law that can be known by reason (and is binding on humans) as the “natural law.”
We can’t know the rest of the eternal law (the non-natural part) so there is no point in spending time on it. It is believed that God bestows this knowledge on blessed humans when they die – the beatific vision – but this is by revelation and not by reason. The natural law, however, is something we can know and should work to uncover, such as through science and through the moral law (for example, by theologians and philosophers). We must discover the essence of morality. Aquinas notes that “since God is the source of the essence of all things, one morally must pursue those actions that promote and avoid those actions that oppose an entity’s essence.” Examples are destroying an animals habitat so it cannot pursue its place in God’s plan or refusing to allow others to eat properly. “The moral good becomes, quite simply, that which is in accord with the order created by God (and hence in accord with reason); the moral evil becomes that which opposes this order.”
Aquinas notes that yes, moral truths are in the Bible – but one can also find these moral truths by using reason. “If one, by means of reason, taps into and conforms to the moral law of God, one is morally in the right. If one acts contrary to reason and hence against the natural law of God, one is morally wrong.”
To find the moral good, both intellect and reason are needed. Intellect, “the intuitive faculty drawn to non-empirical truths, discovers the proper end in a given situation.” It establishes first principles like good should be done and evil avoided (In math, the axioms). Reason tells us how to get to that proper end by using practical experiences. For example, looking at lying and seeing it is harmful, you can see that not lying leads to doing good and avoiding evil.
Aquinas uses the example of community. “Human beings only fully flourish when they live in community and…such flourishing is a good thing that should be pursued.” Both reason and intellect prove this conclusion – intellect notes that interacting with others leads to a better life than just being a hermit, and reason finds the means – treat others well, don’t be a jerk, etc. the fact that this method seems like something we always do is evidence of how influential Aquinas was on Western tradition. Aquinas also notes that the Bible is flawless and will never be contradicted by reason.
Aquinas is an optimist about human nature – we are programmed to seek the good, and we have reason and intellect to help us find it. This is contrary to Augustine and many Christians today, who feel that we are corrupt and will always pursue sin. Aquinas, though, says that even though “original sin corrupts our once pure reason so that at times we choose the wrong means to the good…the good is still the thing we seek.” Even bad people want peace and security, they just do bad things to get them. “That humans are good, that they can usually be trusted, and the ability to find the truth are all ideas put forth by Aquinas that would later become hallmarks of the Enlightenment.”
Another important consequence of this argument is that it provides a “common basis” for everyone to discuss moral issues. The Bible has no meaning to atheists, Jews, Muslims, and so on. Aquinas writes, “It follows therefore that natural law in its first common principles is the same among all men, both as to validity and recognition. It is “written on the hearts” of all people and is a way for everyone to agree on ethics no matter what their religion or belief. This later became the basis of international law.
Finally, this gives us a way to discuss issues not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, such as nuclear weapons or cloning. Sola Scriptura doesn’t help here. Roman Catholics, drawing on Aquinas’ tradition, use reason and the natural law to discuss these topics. The author uses environmental issues as an example. Yes, animals serve a purpose as food, and it’s okay to hunt for that purpose – but not for sport. Destroying an animal’s habitat so that it cannot pursue its role in God’s plan is morally wrong as well. Instead, it is our job to protect and even encourage them to be able to pursue their role in creation. (Scott note: This is what stewardship of creation really means) Aquinas did not address this, but his framework of the natural law is flexible enough to be used for these types of issues.
This applies to human rights as well. It is the natural law, not written laws (the positive law), that Jefferson referred to in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Other moral documents such as UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Nuremburg War-Crimes Codes, and the Geneva Convention, are also based on the natural law.
Chapter 6: The Ins and Outs of Sex
Aquinas’ views on sexuality are very influential even today – and this despite the fact that he was a lifelong celibate.
He starts, as above, by asking what is the ultimate end of sex? In addition to procreation, Aquinas identifies two other essential purposes: To strengthen the marriage bond, and for pleasure. He noted that man and woman seem to be designed to “fit” together physically, as well. This was surely not an accident, he reasoned, but instead meant that it must be part of the essence of sex.
Augustine, writing earlier, had stated that before the Fall, sex was a purely rational act that brought no pleasure and was just matter of fact. Due to original sin, passion and pleasure were introduced and sex became an act of self-love, because one did it for pleasure. Sex is then the way original sin was passed from generation to generation – and this is why Jesus was born of a virgin (no semen involved).
Aquinas disagreed. To not take pleasure, to him, was a sin, and is part of God’s plan for sex. He wrote, “The exceeding pleasure experienced in the sex act, so long as it is in harmony with reason, does not destroy the balance of virtue.” Note, however, that the other purposes of sex must be satisfied – procreation and unity with one’s spouse. These three purposes form the basis of Catholic belief and many other Christians’ beliefs as well.
So, per Aquinas, anytime we deviate from one of these three ends of sex, we have sinned. The seriousness of the sin depends on how far we have deviated from those ends. The ends are ranked by Aquinas thus:
First, the “sins against right reason”: Fornication is the least serious sexual sin. His reasoning: Pleasure and conception are both possible, but it doesn’t strengthen the marital bond since they are not married. Adultery is next; it too allows pleasure and could result in conception, but it is worse than fornication in that it damages a marital bond. Rape is worse; while it allows for conception it does not strengthen a marital bond and it does not allow for pleasure for at least one partner (note that it also commits the sin of violence).
Worse than these are the “sins against nature,” namely masturbation, sodomy, and homosexuality. Masturbation is the least severe of these three – It cannot produce offspring, and it does not strengthen a marital bond, but at least it allows for pleasure. (Note that though this is considered to be a more serious sexual sin than rape, rape is the worse sin because of the sin of violence it includes). This, also, is why Catholics consider masturbation to be such a serious sin. Because masturbation is needed for artificial insemination, Catholics are often opposed to that as well. Cloning will be a case that will affect this belief, most likely.
Sodomy is the next worst – and not just for homosexuals, but for a man with a woman as well. This is because it involves two people (not just one, like masturbation) both avoiding conception. Also, Aquinas found it questionable whether or not it strengthened the marital bond. Birth control is also considered a sin by the Catholic church because it deliberately avoids conception, one of the three Divine ends of sex. Naturally, this is a huge reason Catholics condemn homosexuality – not only because conception in not possible, but (until recently) it didn’t strengthen a marital bond because gays couldn’t marry.
Recently, though, people have used Aquinas to defend homosexuality. Robert Wood: if homosexuality is genetic, then wouldn’t that mean it was part of God’s plan and therefore natural? Wood argues that it may have been a built-in form of population control.
The fact that they cannot conceive is another reason, though, and this is also a challenge – can couples no longer able to conceive have sex? They cannot meet one of the basic purposes (conception), so should they abstain?
In the 1930s, Pope Pius ruled that these couples could have sex – they can have a pro-creative intent and hope for a miracle. As long as they want to have children, they have met the pro-creative intent. So, Renick asks, can the same not apply to homosexuals? Can they hope for a miracle too, and thus meet the intent and not sin?
Pope Paul, in Humanae Vitae, 1968, stated that the rhythm method was allowed to be used – and thus a procreative intent is not always necessary in every sexual act in marriage (they are using a natural method of birth control rather than a man-made form of it). This ruling is, of course, still controversial.
So, Aquinas’ arguments continue to be influential here as well. Beyond the Bible, the laws of nature apply to sex, and thus should be obeyed.
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
In my quest to learn theology, I’ve found that you need to have an understanding of the writings of those who have gone before you. This is a daunting task, as anyone who has seen Barth or Tillich‘s Systematic Theology tomes. I discovered, to my delight, a series of books called The Armchair Theologian. These summarize the views of many of the most important theologians of the past, such as Barth, Wesley, and Augustine. They are not free from bias; of course every author brings his or her bias to what the write and the various authors that wrote these summaries are no exception. Also, these are introductions and overviews; they are not by any means complete descriptions of the various theologians beliefs and works! For that, you should always go to the original source. But these are good beginner’s surveys.
Today I’d like to start by looking at Thomas Aquinas. Let’s jump right in; you can find the book information at the end of the post!
Chapter 1: Beginnings
In Chapter 1: Beginnings, Renick begins by noting that Aquinas’ “theory of natural law shaped our modern concept of human rights. His views of the state supplied the model for Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.” He is the one who came up with the concepts of Jus in bello and Jus ad bellum, and he is the one who came up with many of the most well-known proofs of the existence of God. Aquinas’ thinking was in reaction to the new universities springing up and the Muslim ideas being brought back by the crusaders. He wanted to show that “the truths of the Bible and the truths of Christianity could be shown to have a rational basis” and used reason to prove it.
Aquinas was born around 1225 in Aquino, between Rome and Naples. He was the youngest of seven sons, and was sent to the Benedictines at 5 yrs old; despite this, he liked it. He studied Aristotle at the University of Naples at 14 (including Politics, ethics, and Metaphysics). Note that Aristotle was considered dangerous because his books conflicted with Church teachings. After University, Thomas joined the Dominicans and took a vow of poverty, which didn’t sit well with his family. Two of his brothers tried to talk him out of it, supposedly hiring a prostitute who tried to seduce Thomas. Instead he fended her off with a fireplace poker, drew a cross on the wall, and begged God to grant him constant virginity, which appears to have happened. Bernard Gui, Thomas’ biographer, wrote “From that time onwards, it was his custom to avoid the sight and company of women – except in case of necessity or utility – as a man avoids snakes.” Despite this his writings on sex have been influential. Also, he was apparently a chubby fellow and had a good memory.
Summa Theologica is over two million words. The eidetic and eclectic Aquinas integrated the Bible, Aristotle (“The Philosopher”), Augustine, Jerome, Maimonides, Averroes, Avicenna, and others into it. He gave sermons, and was a professor at the University of Paris, beginning his lectures at 6:00 AM – amazingly, they were well-attended. He died in 1274, the Summa unfinished.
Thomism was condemned 3 years later as it used Aristotle who was considered to be heretical. This was done by the Archbishop of Paris and the Archbishop of Canterbury. But since the pagans and Jews did not accept the Bible as true, one had to appeal to reason, and so his ideas became needed to defend the faith. In 1323, a few years after the lifting of the ban, the Church initiated the process of making Thomas a saint. The poker incident was one of two miracles needed for sainthood; the other was the fact that on his deathbed, he asked for herring, although it wasn’t the season for them, and it just so happened that a fishing boat came in that day with…a herring.
Chapter 2: Humans, Angels, and God
Reason needs faith – not everything can be proved by reason alone, such as the Trinity. These things must be revealed.
Faith needs reason – Aquinas felt that “human beings are unique, somewhat like the animals and somewhat like the angels but identical to neither.” Animals learn things using their senses, but angels can’t because they don’t have physical bodies. So, they learn using their “intellect,” which Aquinas defines as “the ability to know truths intuitively, to experience things…on a direct intellectual level,” in much the same way that we “know” we are in love. The angels thus know metaphysical truths and can know and experience God in a way that a dog cannot.
Humans, thus, can do both. Morals cannot be empirically established, but are “known” metaphysically. However, since we are both physical and intellectual, we are not as good as the angels at knowing things purely intellectually. Our physical senses can confuse us. But, since God made us with both types of senses, we should use both types of senses to understand the cosmos and know God. This includes using your reason and intellect but also your physical senses (one reason that depending only on faith healing is wrong). “Science and medicine are a testimony, not a threat, to God’s design.”
“…Aquinas writes, ‘It is impossible for items that belong to reason to be contrary to those that pertain to faith.” If the belief is ‘true’, then faith has nothing to fear of it. If the belief is false, then it cannot be a dictate of reason.”
Aquinas had five proofs of God’s existence, often called the “Five Ways” and that present the same argument five parallel ways. The first is the argument from motion. Empirically: Things move. Whatever is moved must be moved by another. So, something must have started the movement, and this is the “First Mover“. This, Aquinas says, is God (although this does not prove the existence of the Christian God). Immanuel Kant says, however – what moved the First Mover? If you don’t need anything, then why do you need a first mover?
Several other philosophers such as Etienne Gilson have rebutted Kant. Today, science relegates the role to nature as the first mover, but, the question remains, “How does ‘nature’ in this sense differ from the “God” of the religious believer? What do we mean by “God” other than, in the first instance, that force which generated the cosmos?…who or what caused the Big Bang? Where did the matter that exploded come from in the first place?”
Aquinas also felt that reason could tell us some things about God’s nature. He said that God is immutable (unchangeable) in every way. His reasoning was that if God had changed it would be for better or worse. “If God is perfect, he could not have changed for the better or he would not have been perfect. He could not have changed for the worse, or He would not now be perfect.” The author notes that this does not take into account a morally neutral change. This belief, that God doesn’t change at all, is still strongly held today by most Christians.
So, since “God is the author of a reasonable universe…what we know and say about [Him] should be reasonable” as well.
Source: Aquinas for Armchair Theologians, Timothy M. Renick, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY 2002
Theology is a pretty complex subject and has a LOT of areas to explore. I’ve actually written several posts on it before. I still keep up on my reading so I’d like to pass on some of what I’m learning. I figured I’d start an occasional series like I have with my Remedial Law 101 series.
My theology has been challenged this past year due to personal disasters. Things have happened that made me question what I believe. I had to go back to bedrock. I know for sure that I believe every word of the Apostle’s Creed. Beyond that…I don’t know. A lot is on the table, from inerrancy to infallibility to just how much God is involved in our daily lives. And my view of moral issues is on the table as well. Which side of the Progressive vs. Conservative debate I fall on is up in the air now.
I’ve always seen God as a stern judge, ready to smite me for doing the wrong thing, punishing me for my many flaws, and grudgingly letting me into heaven because I believe in the atonement. So one of the first things I’ve been doing is rejecting that image, and reminding myself constantly that God loves me now, flaws and all, just as I am, unconditionally. And even if I make choices He doesn’t approve of, He’ll still love me, and not just to the point of letting me in to Heaven, but loving me as His child.
I also want to touch on some other religions and faiths, as well as exploring some of the diverse ways of practicing Christianity, such as Santeria, Candomblé, and Umbanda. I’m taking some classes through Harvard on sacred scriptures as well.