Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Putting the “Sapor” Back in “Sapientia”

A couple of weeks ago, I assigned my students one of the hymns by the Wesley brothers to talk about Protestant challenges to the Eucharist (“Victim Divine, Thy Grace We Claim”). In their journals, many of my students reflected on how refreshing it was to read a hymn, even one that was so richly theological and complex as this one. As one student wrote, “Songs can be theology too.”

Indeed they can. This is one of the reasons I love studying the Medievals like Thomas Aquinas. Although Aquinas is known most for his Summa Theologica (which I think is a remarkably beautiful work even if it is intellectually rigorous), Aquinas also did theology in other forms besides the Scholastic disputational method we see in the Summa. For example, he wrote commentaries on Scripture, sermons, prayers, and yes, even songs. One of the most beautiful and most commonly sung is the “Tantum Ergo”:

Tantum ergo Sacramentum
veneremur cernui:
et antiquum documentum
novo cedat ritui:
praestet fides supplementum
sensuum defectui.
Genitori, Genitoque
laus et iubilatio,
salus, honor, virtus quoque
sit et benedictio:
procedenti ab utroque
compar sit laudatio.
Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail;
Lo! o’er ancient forms departing,
newer rites of grace prevail;
faith for all defects supplying,
where the feeble sense fail.
To the everlasting Father,
and the Son who reigns on high,
with the Holy Ghost proceeding
forth from Each eternally,
be salvation, honor, blessing,
might and endless majesty.

It is uncommon today for a theologian to do more than dapple in such a range of theological genres as someone like Aquinas, as my colleague Jana Bennett bemoans over at There are a lot of reasons for this (which she identifies), including time, ability, and tenure track requirements. One reason, however, that we do not witness the same aesthetic pursuit in academic theologians today as we did in the Medieval period may have to do with the way we think of wisdom.

In our post-Kantian world, wisdom is purely a matter of intellect. The wise person is the smart person, the educated person, the person who can make and win rigorous intellectual arguments. For the Medievals, wisdom is an intellectual virtue, but it is an intellectual virtue with a strong affective component. Take, for example, the following discussion from Denys the Carthusian’s Prefatory Questions on the Sentences:

Just as, then, those heroic men who are perfect in love, through the gift of wisdom that they have according to a perfect degree, are as it were the counselors, and secretaries, and the familiar friends of God, from whom they are strongly illuminated as they stand in a certain contact with the sun of uncreated Wisdom, and who by a supernatural and abundant internal taste know and taste the divine things to be believed and who judge well and certainly about the same things through the conformity and connaturality of their affections for them, so through the gift of understanding by which they are adorned to a perfect degree they understand most clearly, most certainly and most subtly those things that belong to our faith, and they also understand the connections and order of things to be believed and the supernatural reasonableness of the Catholic truth. . . Hence, this illumination is not given only to students in theology and to all of them, or to people who have great natural abilities, but to those who more stand out in their purity of heart and in their charity. One of these is the holy Brother Giles, who did not with say ‘I believe in God’ but rather “I know God.’ And another was the Seraphic Saint Francis.

Wisdom, it seems, is not just based in the intellect, but is based rather in “a supernatural and abundant taste of divine things to be believed.” Denys is appealing here to the etymology of wisdom [sapientia] which is rooted in sapor [to taste].

For Aquinas, wisdom is the gift of the Holy Spirit discussed in the context of his treatise on charity, a virtue rooted in the will. Aquinas treats wisdom both as an intellectual virtue (and intellectual gift), and as virtue with a strong affective component, rooted not just in the activity of the intellect, but also, and primarily, in the loving relationship (a connaturality) with God:

Wisdom denotes a certain rectitude of judgment according to the Eternal Law. Now rectitude of judgment is twofold: first, on account of perfect use of reason, secondly, on account of a certain connaturality with the matter about which one has to judge. Thus, about matters of chastity, a man after inquiring with his reason forms a right judgment, if he has learned the science of morals, while he who has the habit of chastity judges of such matters by a kind of connaturality (II-II, 45.2).

Returning to the quote from Denys, Aquinas would agree that the unschooled St. Francis was wise, not as a result of rigorous philosophical and theological study, but rather, because of the indwelling of grace that had brought him into union with God who is Wisdom himself. For Francis and others who possess such wisdom, their theological writings may lack the intellectual character of a figure like Aquinas, but are nevertheless still works of genuine wisdom. Francis did not need to study to be wise; the source of his wisdom was not learning but love.

What is the lesson here? As a theologian and an academic (like Thomas in kind but not in degree) I am firmly convicted that the study of theology is important for the development of wisdom. It is important to engage in disputation, to explore in depths the principles of the faith, and to deduce conclusions (especially ethical conclusions) from those principles. But it is also important, perhaps even more important, to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” The liturgy is a powerful source of this sapor, where the music and the psalms and the incense and the light infiltrating in through the stained glass all culminate in the reception of the Eucharist as the senses, intellect, and will are all brought into union with Christ who presents himself bodily at the altar. From this sapor, a different sapientia flows forth in poetry and song: “Sing, my tongue, the Savior’s glory, of His flesh the mystery sing,” as we sing with Thomas in the Pange Lingua.

The taste of this wisdom depends also on our ability to let ourselves be passive recipients of the God who offers himself to us. For Aquinas, wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a free gift of grace. Our inability to taste is often, I think, rooted in our desire to feed ourselves, rather than to let ourselves be fed. In the Anima Christi, we pray, “Blood of Christ, inebriate me,” indicating, I think, that we need to let our guard down, lose a little of our self control, and be rendered vulnerable to the working of the Spirit who offers us a foretaste of that Divine Banquet where “ we shall be drowned, lost in that ocean of divine love, annihilated in that immense love of the Heart of Jesus!”

What Kind of Theology is Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for a Living God?

If you study theology, you have probably already know that a committee of the US Bishops Committee on Doctrine recently raised a series of red flags about Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s most recent book Quest for the Living God: Mapping frontiers in the Theology of God. The committee suggested that the book should not be in used in Catholic schools and universities because it conflicts with church doctrine:

The Committee has concluded that this book contains misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church as found in Sacred Scripture, and as it is authentically taught by the Church’s universal magisterium. Because this book by a prominent Catholic theologian is written not for specialists in theology but for ‘a broad audience’, the Committee on Doctrine felt obliged, as part of its pastoral ministry, to not these misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors.

The bishops’ first critique is a methodological one. The bishops write that theology must begin from faith and proceed within the heart of the Church:

Theologians must therefore, first lay hold of the content of God’s revelation, the auditus fidei, as proclaimed in Scripture and taught within the Church, through an act of personal faith. Only then are they properly equipped to inquire into the content of that faith, the intellectus fidei, seeking a greater understanding and clearer expression of it.

In the footnotes, the Committee cites Thomas Aquinas: in saying that “just as other sciences accept as a given the first principles of their particular science, Christian theology ‘does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith'” (ST I, q. 1, a. 8).

The Committee then accuses Sr. Johnson of beginning not with faith but with a critique of the orthodox doctrine of God, particularly regarding God’s immutability, incorporeality, impassibility, omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.

I don’t want to comment on Sr. Johnson’s book or the Committee’s critique in any specificity. The ladies at WIT, bloggers at dotCommonweal, and the moral theologians at have done a much better job than I could in evaluating the merits of the criticisms. I, however, want to challenge the singular definition of theology the Committee provides us as “seeking a greater understanding and clearer expression” of the first principles of faith. Understanding and clarifying is one understanding of theology, which Peter Aureoli, student and commenter on Aquinas, calls “declarative theology.” In declarative theology, one starts

with some proposition about which it has been determined what has too be believed and held by faith, and then reasons for believing it are brought forth, and then doubts concerning it are dissolved, and terms expressing it [are] been explained. . .(Commentary on book I of the Sentences, Proem, section 1, q.1)

It is declarative theology according to Aureoli which can properly be considered a theological habit. But it is not the only way to do theology. He provides other ways:

The fist takes place when you draw your conclusions from one proposition that is believed and another that is necessary. A second is based on two believed premises. A third is based on one believed premise and another probable one. A fourth type of conclusion is based on two probable premises. A fifth way, depending on two necessary premises, is equivalent to the first procedure [where you arrive at a known metaphysical conclusion such as is God one? or is God infinite?], where you end up with a known conclusion, not just one that has to be believed.

In other words, theology can lead to metaphysical conclusions when it addresses demonstrative knowledge of truths that are based on necessary propositions that are naturally known, as we see in Book VI of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. This does not fit the Committee’s definition of theology as clarifying and understanding the principles of faith, but metaphysics is nevertheless a way to study theology.

Theology can also include simple conclusions of faith, “where you employ one premise held by faith and another necessary premise” such as when you conclude that Christ has two wills based on the fat that every intellectual nature has a will and Christ has two natures. The conclusions of this deductive theology are conclusions of faith, not “the habit of theology” according to Aureoli. Nevertheless, deduction from faith is a part of the study of theology, and indeed, a major part of Aquinas’ own theology.

Significant for Johnson’s book, theology can also lead to conclusions of opinion “if you ask what has to be believed in regard to some doubtful proposition in the are of faith”:

In these cases you do not acquire any habit that is different from opinion. And these make up the opinions of the doctors of theology in many of their questions.

Theological opinion is gained when we reflect on things like what Jesus was like as a kid, how the gifts of the Spirit contribute to sanctification, and what the nature of purgatory is like. Theological opinion is important, and indeed, can be very good, very persuasive, and very true. But the habit that such theological reflection leads to is nevertheless still opinion.

This seems to be what Sr. Johnson is doing in Quest. She is beginning with principles that are only probable, namely, with the experience of the living God. She is not beginning with the first principles of theology, the articles of the faith, because she is not doing deductive or declarative theology. Her contribution is still a theological contribution, just not in the narrow way the Committee has defined theology.

Now, to the Committee’s credit, they are trying to watch out for the faith of “little ones” who might think that the conclusions in Sr. Johnson’s book are doctrinal, but that same goal could have been achieved by distinguishing the different ways in which people do theology. Aquinas clearly is awesome, but he did mainly declarative and deductive theology (as well as some metaphysics thrown in for good measure). Augustine, one the other hand, did a lot of theological opining. How much worse off would the Church be if we didn’t have Augustine’s Confessions? Or Abelard’s Letter to Heloise? Or Von Balthasar’s theological aesthetic? Johnson’s Quest, I would say, should be considered an analogous work as these great theological opinions. As such, it is good to point out that people need not accept her conclusions, but that does not mean they need not read what she has to say.

Does Studying Theology Make Us Certain?

Those who are familiar with Thomas Aquinas know that he begins the Summa Theologica (his magnum opus) with the question as to how one can go about studying theology. In article two of that question, he asks whether theology is a science, and to answer, he makes a critical distinction so that he can answer that theology is, in one way at least, a science, thus making the Summa itself a work of science:

Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God.

In other words, theology is a science, Aquinas says, if we understand it as a sort of “subalternated” science which derives its first principles from another science. Unlike other subalterated sciences like music or optics, however, theology derives its first principles from a non-demonstrable science. Godfrey of Fontaines explains why this is so:

[I]f theology were truly and properly a science after the model of a subalternated science in relation to a subalternating one, it would be necessary that the principles of theology that are had in this life be certain by the certitude of evidence at least in regard to knowledge that such is the case, and it would be necessary that there would be knowledge of why it is the case in the science the blessed have of these principles . . . So, in order that theology be science and that not only would there be faith regarding the conclusion of theology as there is regarding the principles, then regarding its principles it is necessary that they be not only believed but be known and evident. For, the type of evidence the principles have will determine the parallel type of evidence that the conclusion will have. For although a conclusion may be drawn from principles that are only believed and the consequence or the necessity of the consequence can be scientifically known, still the consequent and its necessity cannot be known scientifically from such principles (Quodlibet, IV, q. 10, 1287).

In other words, we might call music or optics a subalternated science because it derives its first principles from another science (arithmetic or geometry), or is subjected to other more proper sciences. Thus, an optician may proceed to study optics without having proper knowledge of the first principles of his science, which are derived from geometry. However, the optician may study geometry and in doing so, gain a more perfect knowledge of optics. Optics is thus subordinated or subalternated to geometry, but not in such a way that prevents a more perfect knowledge of optics through gaining a more perfect knowledge of its first principles through the study of another science.

Theology, as Godfrey points out, is not like this. Theology is based on first principles which do not come from another human science which may be studied, but rather from the science which exists in the mind of God and is consequently beyond all human understanding. “Science,” Godfrey tells us, is “a sure habit possessing both the certitude of evidence and the certitude of conviction,” which theology can never have because it is based in principles which are not certain but accepted on faith. In contrast to science, faith, Godfrey writes, is “a sure habit having only the certitude of conviction, not the certitude of evidence.” Faith may be stronger than opinion (which lacks both the certitude of evidence and conviction), but for Godfrey, because theology rests on revealed first principles which cannot be proved, it can only be faith and never science.

Is there a difference between Thomas and Godfrey? Maybe, but on the subject of theology as science, perhaps they can be reconciled. Thomas, like Godfrey, knows that the first principles of theology rest on faith. Such principles like the Trinity, Incarnation, and Eschaton cannot be proved, only believed. For Thomas, belief comes as a gift not only of intellectual propositions, but the gift of an actual relationship with God. The object of faith, while not convincing to the non-believer, is actually more certain than sensory knowledge because it is a knowledge based not only on the discursive intellect, but also the affections (as elevated by the gifts of the Holy Spirit). However, from those first principles, rational and logical conclusions can be drawn which enhance the knowledge one has of the first principles, and on this, Thomas and Godfrey are not in such disagreement. Godfrey writes:

So, when theology is posited as science, it is necessary that its principles become in some way evident and known or understood. In fact, evidence has to be of a kind that respects the excellence of its subject matter and the weakness of the human knower. Thus, to one instructed in theology, it is much more evident than to the simple layman that Christ, God and man, has risen, and how this is possible and not impossible. . . Therefore, even though such things are not as evident as are the principles of other sciences because of their lack of proportion to our intellect, still they are known by a kind of evidence that is sufficient. . . Concerning he kind of knowledge we have in theology, Augustine, in Book XIV of his De Trinitate, says: “Many of the faithful are not strong in this science, even though they are strong in the faith itself. For it is one thing to know what a man must believe in order to gain the blessed life; it is another thing to know how that which is believed may help the pious and be defended against the impious.”

So, both Aquinas and Godfrey show us that by studying theology, we are not making scientific arguments that will be convincing as science to the non-believer. However, by studying theology scientifically, that is, by logically deducing conclusions from revealed first principles, we do get a sort of science which is important, not because it makes our beliefs more convincing to the non-believer, but because we become more convinced, even in light of the opposition of non-believers. Thus, theology does enhance knowledge if conducted scientifically, even if we still might not be able to call theology a proper science.

This seems to me incredibly important today when so many believers, when faced with a materialist and empiricist scientific worldview, feel the need either to doubt or abandon their faith or to withdraw into a sectarian, anti-scientific stance. For this latter group, recovering the Medieval concept of theology as a science can help Christians engage the scientific community in a spirit of dialogue rather than polemics, and by incorporating the sciences into the study of theology, they may actually become better believers.

The Challenge of Naturalism

At an ethics colloquium this week, I heard a professor tell a story (which I hope is okay to repeat here since both the storyteller and the subject of the story are anonymous) of a former theology student who had recently written with proud news of an upcoming publication on the topic of liturgy. She went on to tell him that she was flourishing in her job as the campus minister at a Catholic school. She had recently gotten into spiritual direction, which was going okay, despite the fact that she no longer believed in God, and overall, she was very happy with her life and career.

Wait. . . she no longer believes in God? In America, this is not as rare as you might think. While Europe is becoming increasingly more secularized, and the churches are becoming more and more empty, in the US, something else is happening. Externally, we are a very religious nation with a high percentage of churchgoers (about 47% of Americans attend a weekly religious service as opposed to about 20% in Europe). Nevertheless, there are signs that we are a nation a lot like this professor’s former theology student—involved in the act of religion without the corresponding belief. As Terence Nichols puts it in his very fine book The Sacred Cosmos:

Supernatural realities such as miracles, angels, afterlife, a sacred cosmos, and so on are rarely broached, at least in mainline Protestant denominations (and less and less so in Roman Catholic churches). God has become distant from everyday life. People may still believe in God, got to church, even pray, but without deep conviction. . .(8)

For Nichols, the problem is naturalism, “the belief that nature is all that exists, and that everything can be explained by natural causes and therefore by science. There is no nonmaterial reality, such as God.” The problem, he says, is deep and

. . . originates further back—with the separation of God from nature, a split that began in the late medieval and early modern period. This resulted in the (perceived) separation of god from everyday life that is so characteristic of contemporary secular societies. . .Ancient and medieval Christians lived in a sacred cosmos and saw nature as a window or sacrament that expressed the beauty, majesty, and glory of God. . . Sacraments make God present and invite the believer into a sharing of God’s presence. But for a sacrament to work, there has to be some similarity, some unity. . . If nature is seen sacramentally, rather than as an object to be investigated and used, it also can mediate the presence of God. Seen sacramentally, nature is a sacred cosmos, for whatever mediates God’s presence is sacred (9).

Instead of a sacred cosmos infused with the supernatural, what we have now, according to Nichols, is a universe completely subject to natural laws, where even religion (to quote E.O. Wilson), is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences. This metaphysical naturalism is the greatest challenge Christianity faces in the contemporary world. As Nichols puts it,

For if nature is all that exists, there cannot be any reality that is greater than and independent of nature. Nor can there be any hope of an afterlife, nor any means to really transcend our natural condition. The consoling grace of god, which frees us from sin, addictions, selfishness, hopelessness, and lovelessness, is, for naturalists, a fiction.

Must we then, as Christians, be anti-science in order to avoid the dangers poised by naturalism? Not at all. Christians have long held (rooted especially in the Thomistic tradition) that scientific naturalism is perfectly appropriate for the natural sciences. Science can tell us much of the world—how it originated, how it fits together, where it is headed. The laws of nature that scientists study are laws created by God and hence are very, very good.

But just because a scientist is committed to scientific naturalism, she need not commit herself also to metaphysical naturalism, i.e., the belief that these natural laws are all that exist. More specifically, a Christian evolutionary biologist very committed to the principles of natural selection need not conclude that simply because evolution exist, God does not. As Nichols points out, some of the greatest scientists were also Christian (Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Pascal, Max Plank). The problem is not evolution (or any other natural “law”), but rather, when evolution becomes an all-encompassing philosophy. Science and theology are meant to be complementary, not antagonistic.

No, the solution for Christians, what Christians need to do if they are to survive the naturalist challenge, is not reject science (and hence the “natural”), but rather, they need to recover the supernatural. In a Christianity Today article, Hwa Yung writes on this,

A careful reading of the Bible and the sheer weight of empirical evidence eventually brought me back to a supernatural Christianity. In this, I found myself out of sync with much of Western theology. Here liberals were at least consistent, but not evangelicals. Most liberals denied the supernatural both in the Bible and in the present; evangelicals fought tooth and nail to defend the miraculous in the Bible, but rarely could cope with it in real life.

Now, Yung is writing about the recovery of a more charismatic Pentecostal form of Christianity, which I am not arguing for here, but his basic point is sound. Christians need to recover the idea of the miraculous, the realm beyond science, the invisible, the graced. To describe how this might take place liturgically or in other Christian practices is beyond the scope of one blog post (though I would love to hear your thoughts), but at the very least, Christians can recover the supernatural in conversation. We can admit that knowledge of God is beyond the capacity of reason. The natural world can lead us towards God, but true knowledge is a supernatural gift, elevating the intellect beyond what it is naturally capable of.

We can also admit that simply because knowledge of God is a gift, and one which we do not experience fully in this life (see 1 John 3:2 and 1 Corinthians 13:12 for when we can expect full knowledge), we can still do theology. In other words, we can still speculate about God, and even do so “scientifically.” Thomas Aquinas tells us

Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God (I, Q. 1, art. 2).

For Aquinas, the object of this science is God, and its principles are the articles of faith (things like the Incarnation and the Trinity). Sacred Scripture is important, but is of itself neither the object nor the principle of theology:

Such are the Trinity of Persons in Almighty God [The Leonine Edition reads: The Three Persons, the omnipotence of God, etc.], the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, and the like: and these are distinct articles of faith. On the other hand certain things in Holy Writ are proposed to our belief, not chiefly on their own account, but for the manifestation of those mentioned above: for instance, that Abraham had two sons, that a dead man rose again at the touch of Eliseus’ bones, and the like, which are related in Holy Writ for the purpose of manifesting the Divine mystery or the Incarnation of Christ: and such things should not form distinct articles (II-II, Q. 1, art. 6).

And in the end, although theology is a matter of disputation (I, Q. 1, art. 8), it ultimately does not get us knowledge of God, but only a certain knowledge of God’s effects, and how those effect pertain to our salvation:

Although we cannot know in what consists the essence of God, nevertheless in this science we make use of His effects, either of nature or of grace, in place of a definition, in regard to whatever is treated of in this science concerning God; even as in some philosophical sciences we demonstrate something about a cause from its effect, by taking the effect in place of a definition of the cause.

Ultimately, the point of theology is not to render God understandable or to possess God, but rather, to seek a mysterious God in love. And when we talk of God (or do theology), it should be this gifted love that we communicate, especially to our friends in the natural sciences. We do not have to make Christianity “natural” in order to speak to scientists. We need rather to speak confidently, humbly, and reverently about the supernatural, and listen to what the sciences have to say about the natural. Maybe, with a little grace, we can actually get a conversation going in which the scientist learns a little about grace and eternal life, and the Christian learns a little about the world.

And this brings us back to naturalism. In terms of religion, naturalism pushes us to make all matters of faith matters of natural science. The Bible becomes an anthropological and sociological document, sacraments become merely rituals, God becomes an idea, and the afterlife becomes a naiveté. Christianity becomes a voluntary association that anybody can “do,” like the girl in the opening story of this post, rather than a graced invitation into a relationship with God. Terence Nichols expresses well the appropriate Christian response:

The greatest gifts of grace are faith, hope, and the love of God (1 Cor. 13) which, Paul tells us, is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that is given to us (Rom. 5:5). It is this love that allows us to love others, even enemies, and that characterizes the converted Christian life. Such a love is beyond our natural abilities. . . Christianity is not about rules and laws, guilt and fear of punishment, or extrinsic rewards. It is about grace: the experience of God’s transforming love and power in our lives that elevates and perfects our natural abilities and allows us to do more that we thought possible. In this sense, the life of every fully converted Christian moves beyond naturalism. It is god’s grace that makes the Christian practice of everyday life possible. And it is this same power of grace that one day will bring us to the resurrection, the ultimate transformation of nature, and to eternal life with God (226-27).

Must God Suffer in Order to Experience Compassion?

Jurgen Moltmann’s great theological contribution was the idea of the “suffering God.” In his book The Crucified God, Moltmann refers to the cross as the beginning of the Trinitarian history of the suffering God in which all human suffering is “taken up” into God. He writes, “There is no suffering which in this history of God is not God’s suffering; no death which has not been God’s death in the history on Golgotha.” The idea of a suffering God is also a recurrent idea in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology. He writes in one of his letters from prison, “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us . . . The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.”

The concept of the suffering God received widespread acceptance in the twentieth century among process theologians, liberation theologians, and feminist theologians, and the idea was also endorsed in Richard Kearney’s Anatheism, which I just finished. Why such broad appeal of the idea of God suffering? In short, the level of atrocities experienced in the twentieth century (World War I, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides, and most especially, the Holocaust), brought into question the immutability and perfection of God, what is often referred to as the “God of metaphysics.” People assumed that an impassible, immutable, unchanging God must be indifferent, remote from creation, and uninvolved with human affairs, which was inconsistent with the Christian idea of the “God of love.”

As I mentioned in the last post and will probably repeat in later posts, I think this reflects an inadequate understanding of the God of metaphysics, and so I want to attempt to defend the impassibility and immutability of God as consistent with, not opposed to the Christian God of love.

First of all, one of the main critiques of the impassible God of metaphysics is that such a God cannot experience compassion for suffering creation. In human experience, compassion refers to the suffering one experiences at the distress of another, what is referred to as “affective compassion.” If God is impassible, then God cannot suffer, and hence, God cannot have compassion. Insofar as suffering is an evil in itself, and no evil can be in God, then critics are right in saying that God cannot have compassion, at least in the way we use the term in human experience.

But compassion also includes action on behalf of the person with compassion in seeking to overcome the other’s suffering as if it were her own suffering. That is, when we suffer ourselves, we act in order to make such suffering cease. Likewise, when we experience compassion, we take similar actions but on behalf of another. Aquinas says that mercy as “heartfelt sympathy for another’s distress, impelling us to succor him if we can” (II-II, Q. 30, art. 1). This action-oriented dimension of compassion is what is called “effective compassion.”

In this sense, God does have compassion, not because God experiences suffering, but because God acts to end the suffering of others. Michael Dodds writes in The Unchanging God of Love that “it is not the degree of suffering as such we admire in the compassionate person, but the degree of love that suffering manifests” (224). Because God’s essence is love, meaning that God is the pure act of love, God’s very essence is the act of ending the suffering of others. As Dodds says, “we attribute to God…the unlimited goodness of compassionate love— a love…bringing unending comfort, healing, peace, and joy” (225). This is what Aquinas calls mercy, “for it belongs to mercy to be bountiful to others, and, what is more, to succor others in their wants, which pertains chiefly to one who stands above. Hence mercy is accounted as being proper to God: and therein His omnipotence is declared to be chiefly manifested” (II-II, Q. 30, art. 4).

In Christology at the Crossroads, Jon Sobrino writes

“We must insist that love has to be credible to human beings in an unredeemed world. That forces us to ask ourselves whether God can really describe himself as love if historical suffering does not affect him… We must say what Moltmann says: “We find suffering that is not wished, suffering which is accepted, and the suffering of love. If God were incapable of suffering in all those ways, and hence in an absolute sense, then God would be incapable of loving.”

But if God is love, and if love is an action of ending the suffering of others, I see no reason to assert that God must therefore be able to suffer if God is to be able to love. Suffering is a privation, a lack of fullness. The fullness of God’s love is capable of overcoming such privations without requiring that God experience privation. This is the power behind the assertion that God is love—not that God has emotions in the sense that we say “God can love.” No, God’s very existence is love, a love which extends to all of God’s creation, and in a particular way to human beings, uniting them to the God of love through mercy in whom is found all peace and succor.

Why I Still Believe in the God of Metaphysics

In Richard Kearney’s new book Anatheism, he says we can no longer accept belief in the “God of the Philosophers,” the Unmoved Mover. There are many reasons to call the Metaphysical God into question–that this is not the way God is presented in Scripture but rather a later appropriation of Greek philosophy, that such a God is not a personal God, not the God who became incarnate and walked among us. However, I want to hold off on rejecting the God of metaphysics entirely.

At a Bible study recently, we read Herbert McCabe’s essay on “Forgiveness” in his collection of essays entitled “Faith Within Reason.” In this essay, he argues that forgiveness is the ability to see oneself as one is–a sinner. When that moment of realization, of self-knowledge, happens, we can begin to see God for who God is, not the Divine projection of our guilt or the inscrutable judge meting out punishment or a paymaster demanding retribution, but rather as the eternal God of love. McCabe writes, somewhat
strikingly, “Never be deluded into thinking that if you have contrition, if you are sorry for your sins, God will come and forgive you—that he will be touched by your appeal, change his mind about you and forgive you. Not a bit of it. God never changes his mind about you. He is simply in love with you. What he does again and again is change your mind about him. That is why you are sorry. That is what our forgiveness is.”

It was hard for the members of the study to wrap their minds around this. After all, we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as subject to God’s anger and God’s wrath when we sin; we confess in order to appease God’s anger and get back into God’s good graces. I have often heard people say that they cannot but help think of God looking down at them with anger and disappointment when they sin.

As with most images of God, these ideas of God do have some truth, and they are common ways of thinking about God throughout Christendom. But as I reflected on these images of the angry or disappointed God looking down on us, I realize that this is not an image of God that I have ever really experienced. Part of the reason is that from a very early age, I was influenced by the philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas which has had the largest and most long-lasting impact on my understanding of God. The God that I learned from Aquinas is a simple God, a God who is God’s very own essence, who is pure act without potentiality. Because this God is simple and pure act, it is a God who does not change, an immutable God, a God who does not acquire any new thing and a God who does not move. Hence, when the Scriptures speak of God’s movement including the movement characteristic of emotion (anger, pity, joy), I always understood such passages as metaphorical representations, human accommodations of a God completely lacking in any emotion.

As such, it is easy for me to see where McCabe is coming from when he says that forgiveness is a human act of seeing God for what God is–pure and unconditional love. He concludes his essay, “It’s OK, you can admit the truth about yourself. It doesn’t matter: God loves you anyway. To admit your sins is to proclaim your faith in God’s love for you personally. To admit your sins is to proclaim your faith in God’s love for you personally. Telling your sins to the church in the sacrament of confession is just a form of the reed; you are saying, “I am really like this and all the same God loves me, God doesn’t care about my sins, he cares about me.” God is just infinite,
unconditional, unalterable, eternal love–and his love is for me and for all sinful people. That is the single statement that we make in the creed.”

Humans will always have a tendency to anthropomorphize God. When we
humanize God by attaching human qualities like emotion or the ability to change one’s mind or accept a bargain, in a way, we bring God closer to us and create a more intimate relationship with God. But such a conception of God can lead us to spend an awful lot of time and effort focusing on changing God rather than changing ourselves. The guilt that we feel from sin, as McCabe points out, and the pain that we suffer as a result of sin is not coming from God directly, but from ourselves. Rising above the guilt and suffering that results from sin is not a matter of appeasing God or convincing God to change God’s mind about us, but is rather a matter of reorienting ourselves to see God for who God is and always remains to be–the unchanging God of love.

A Thomistic Response to N.T. Wright on Metaphysics, Trinitarian Formulas, and the Historical Jesus

In Chapter 4 of Scripture and Metaphysics, Matthew Levering takes on N.T. Wright who argues that traditional Western Trinitarian theology bypasses the narrative account of Scripture especially regarding the historical Jesus, and instead presents a fundamental non-narrative Trinitarian theology which “approache[es] the Christological question by assuming this [ontological] view of god and then fitting Jesus into it” (Wright, “Jesus and the Identity of God,” 54).

Wright begins his essay with a personal anecdote of talking to students who claim to not believe in god. Wright probes them to explain “which god they don’t believe in” and determines that when students say this, what they mean is that they do not believe in a god who sits on high, looking down and casting out judgment, what Wright calls the “spy-in-the-sky.” To these students, Wright responds that he does not believe in such a god either, but rather, believes in the God that is revealed in the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

Wright’s point is that we need historical studies of Jesus because it is all too easy to create an idol of Jesus, a heavenly, perfect, sinless, and non-Jewish Jesus “who wanders round with a faraway look, listening to the music of the angels, remembering the time when he was sitting up in heaven with the other members of Trinity, having angels bring him bananas on golden dishes.” Rather than starting off with the Orthodox, post-Nicaean and post-Chalcedonian Jesus as the second person of the Trinity (what Wright calls the kyriarchal portrait of God), Wright argues that we need to start with the historical Jesus who reveals to us not a creedal formula, but rather, the Old Testament God of Israel:

In Jesus himself, I suggest we see the biblical portrait of YHWH come to life: the loving God, rolling up his sleeves (Isa 52:10) to do in person the job that no one else could do, the creator God giving new life the God who works through his created world and supremely through his human creatures, the faithful God dwelling in the midst of his people, the stern and tender God relentlessly opposed to all that destroys or distorts the good creation, and especially human beings, but recklessly loving all those in need and distress. “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall carry the lambs in his arms; and gently lead those that are with young” (Isa 40:11). It is the OT portrait of YHWH, but it fits Jesus like a glove.

In this chapter, Levering wants to save Aquinas from the implicit criticism of people like Wright, namely, that his conception of Jesus is sterile and formulaic, and completely detached from the Jesus as revealed in Scripture. Instead, Levering claims that Aquinas rejects the kyriarchal portrait of God just as strongly as Wright does. He cites the Tertia Pars, QQ. 46, art. 3. where Aquinas asks whether there was a more suitable way of delivering the human race than by Christ’s passion. In the first objection, alluding to St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, Aquinas states that God could have liberated humankind solely by His Divine Will! This could have not only spared the life of the incarnate son of God but would have more suitably revealed God’s superior power.

But Aquinas rejects the mighty display of God’s power as more suitable than the Passion (as does Wright) on the grounds that Christ’s passion teaches us about the God who saves us: “In the first place, man knows thereby how much god loves him, and is thereby stirred to love him in return, and therein lies the perfection of human salvation” (IIIa, Q. 46, art. 3). As Levering writes:

Christ’s Paschal mystery reveals to human kind the extraordinary depth of God’s love. Without Christ’s passion, humankind would not have known the superabundance of God’s love. The Paschal mystery reveals the Trinity (God-in-himself) in terms of a wisdom of wondrous love,, to the point of the Son of God giving his own life for the salvation of sinners, that is, for the salvation of those who by pride had cut themselves off from God” (Levering 134).

Aquinas does not give us the “disembodied theological cipher” which Wright wants to counter with the historical Jesus, but rather, to use Wright’s own words, “the Jesus whose body was killed as the revelation of the love of God and raised to new life.”

Aquinas gives another reason that Christ’s bloody passion was more fitting than a mighty display of God’s power neatly accomplishing the same task. That is, by his passion, Christ “set us an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice, and the other virtues displayed in the Passion which are requisite for man’s salvation. Hence it is written (I Peter 2:21): ‘Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow in His steps” (IIIa, Q. 46, art. 3). Levering’s point is this, that like Wright, Aquinas appeals to the cross and the scriptural account of Jesus to dispel what Wright calls the “kyriarchal” or aloof, uncaring and philosophically formulaic God. But unlike Wright wants to argue that his scriptural and historical account of Jesus reveals a God of superabundant love, of humility, and of personified wisdom, as opposed to the philosophical accounts of God that his students reject, Aquinas uses philosophy to probe the depths of this mystery further. Namely, Aquinas draws a Trinitarian conclusion.

Jesus, Aquinas argues, was able to endure such suffering (which we have already established is intended to suitably reveal the intimate love of God that God is willing to suffer with and for God’s people) because of intimate knowledge of the Father. In suffering, and suffering without sin, for the sins of others, Jesus had full knowledge of Father, which gave Jesus the ability to suffer the most profound sorrow for sin out of the love which is manifest in the Father. As Levering writes, “the Father inspired Christ’s human will with this perfect charity by infusing Christ’s humanity with the fullness of the grace of the Holy Spirit. In Christ’s passion, one thus sees manifested the incarnate Son’s obedience to the Father through the Holy Spirit. The Paschal mystery of Jesus Christ reveals God’s wisdom and love in Trinitrarian form” (136).

For Aquinas, the scriptural Jesus, and especially the scriptural account of Jesus’ death reveals the Father as the one who sends the Son as the Father’s Word of love for the world, reveals the incarnate Son who is God’s perfect Word in the world, and reveals the Holy Spirit who enables the incarnate Son to suffer with supernaturally-inspired love. That is, for Aquinas, it is not the study of metaphysics, though metaphysics certainly helps, and not the study of creeds, though creeds are important, but precisely the study of Scripture and especially the Passion which reveals the Trinity.

We see the central and foundational importance of scripture in Aquinas’ Trinitarian formulas elsewhere, specifically in his commentary on John. Commenting on John 5:20, Aquinas writes that “because the Father perfectly loves the Son, this is a sign that the Father has shown him everything and has communicated to him his very own power and nature” (Super Ioan. 5, lect. 3, no. 753). Because the Father gives the Son everything he has, the Son is the perfect image of the Father (Hebrews 1:3, Colossians 1:15) or as Aquinas reflects using metaphysical language “since likeness is a cause of love (for every animal loves its like), wherever a perfect likeness of God is found, there also is found a perfect love of God” (Super Ioan 5, lect. 3, no. 753). Just as the Father bets the Son by absolute self-gift, so too the Son, in order to reveal the Father, must give himself completely.” Hence, we get the Passion.

This is not a way of ignoring the God of Israel which Jesus reveals perfectly through his earthly life (as Wright wants to argue); it is, however, a fuller revelation of the God of Israel. Levering writes, “Before Christ’s coming, the people of Israel knew God the father, but they only knew him as father in the sense of Creator, and as the one and only God. Christ’s disciples, on the other hand, are able to know Father by faith (by the grace of the Holy Spirit) as the Father of the only-begotten son” (139). Aquinas cites John 5:36 on this point: “The very works which m Father has given me to perform—those works that I myself perform—they bear witness to me that the Father sent me.” According to Aquinas, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus, by revealing himself through his works, also reveals the Father. This is the basis of Trinitarian formulas—the works of Jesus as related by Scripture.

Wright wants to say that if we really study the Jesus as revealed in Scripture, we will not get at a creedal Trinitarian formula. The real Jesus and the Second Person of the Trinity have nothing to do with each other. He writes,

After fifteen years of serious historical Jesus study, I still say the creed ex animo; but I now mean something very different by it, not least by the word “god” itself. The portrait has been redrawn. At its heart we discover a human face, surrounded by a crown of thorns. God’s purpose for Israel has been completed. Salvation is of the Jews, and from the King of the Jews it has come. God’s covenant faithfulness has been revealed in the good news of Jesus, bringing salvation for the whole cosmos.

But for Aquinas, as Levering points out, it is precisely by studying this historical, earthly Jesus that we are taught, as Jesus taught his friends, about the Trinity. Jesus teaches us through his words and actions. On this, Aquinas would agree with Wright. But whereas Wright uses only historical and literary methods to understand this Jesus, Aquinas also integrates metaphysical methods to not only exegete the historical Jesus, but also to be conformed to true knowledge of the living God revealed in scripture. Metaphysical speculation does not, as Wright criticizes, lead to the construction of an aloof kyriarchal idol, but rather, seeks to illuminate the true meaning of scriptural narrative of the transcendent and immanent God revealed to Israel as YHWH. In short, metaphysical speculation, in addition to historical and literary methods of understanding, complement one another by instilling within the believer greater contemplative understanding of the mystery of the Trinity. Or as A.F. Gunten, O.P. remarks,

“The texts of Scripture invited [Aquinas] to undertake a philosophical study that bears its fruits. It then permits him to give a more precise interpretation of Scripture.”

Aquinas on God’s Knowledge

Jon Levenson writes in Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence that three Christian theological errors have distorted the scriptural understanding of Israel’s God:

1. “the residue of the static Aristotelian conception of deity as perfect, unchanging being”
2. “the uncritical tendency to affirm the constancy of divine action;”
3. “the conversion of biblical creation theology into an affirmation of the goodness of whatever is.” (Levenson xxv).

This is the argument that Matthew Levering takes on in Chapter 3 of Scripture and Metaphysics, namely, that in light of Scripture’s numerous accounts of God’s capricious will e.g. Exodus 32, Jeremiah 18), incomplete knowledge (Genesis 18:21), and impotence to stop certain atrocious acts, how can Christian theology still hold that God is unchanging, omniscient, and omnipotent. Levering illustrates how Aquinas solves this problem through a creative interplay of Scriptural exegesis and metaphysical reflection. In this post, we will discuss Levenson’s argument that God is not omniscient as the metaphysicians claim that God is.

Levering first identifies three important aspects of Aquinas’ scriptural exegesis. The first is that Aquinas has a “whole-canon hermeneutic;” that is, he accepts on faith that the whole Bible contains God’s self-revelation. This means that Aquinas thinks that each passage which reveals something about God’s identity must be weighed against other relevant passages in order to understand the full meaning of these passages.

Second, Aquinas thinks that the images of God found in the biblical texts must be analyzed metaphysically in order to fully understand what the text is saying, and in order to avoid anthropomorphizing God. The third point is related to the second. That is, Aquinas believes that human language used to refer to God is analogical, meaning that words used to describe finite creatures like “good” or “wise” or “angry” cannot be fully and properly ascribed to God who is beyond human comprehension and human language. To see more on Aquinas’ use of analogical language to talk about God, check out this earlier post.

In seeking to understand God’s knowledge, Aquinas turns first to the relevant passages of Scripture, and then uses metaphysical speculation to investigate these revealed mysteries by establishing “their ontological, causal, and communicative structures, [thus enabling him as a theologian] to express judgments about the meaning of Scripture’s claims about God and human beings” (Levering 21; see Fides et Ratio no. 66).

Jon Levenson, influenced by process theology, doubts that God fully knows other creatures, arguing that this seems to contradict the image of God in scripture of God coming to know his creatures, whose free actions seem to frequently allude the knowledge of God. In investigating God’s knowledge, Aquinas begins with God’s perfection, citing Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is also perfect.” Aquinas notes that “a thing is perfect in proportion to its state of actuality, because we call that perfect which lacks nothing of the mode of its perfection” (Ia, Q. 4, art. 1). What he means is that we use the word “perfect” analogically to describe the being of something.

A thing is perfect in so far as it exists the way that it is supposed to. A pen, for example, is perfect in so far as it fully exists as a pen is supposed to exist, writing smoothly, etc. Human beings, however, are more complicated than pens. There are lots of different ways that humans can be. Humans can be wise or unwise, they can be good or not good, they can be knowledgeable or lacking knowledge. Human beings are good or perfect (that is, achieve the fullness of their being) to the extent that they do the various things that human beings are supposed to do. One of the things that humans are supposed to do is “know things.” Thus, knowledge is one of the various perfections that we can ascribe to humans.

But humans exist or “have being” in a different way that God does since they are (1) created and (2) embodied. Humans can have more or less existence. For example, somebody who has lived a long time and has done good and virtuous things and has gained a lot of knowledge we might describe as having “a full life.” Such a person has reached a greater state of perfection. I do not a moral state of perfection but an ontological state of perfection. They have reached a greater or fuller state of being. They have lived the way humans are supposed to live.

God, we have already established, is pure Being, because God is pure form. Since God is pure and simple Being, there is only one way for God to exist. In other words, God does not have more or less existence like human beings do. So all the “perfections” that we ascribe to humans to indicate the extent to which they are fulfilling how they are supposed “to be,” perfections like goodness and knowledge, are already in God because God is simple Being. God is not better or worse, or does not exist in a fuller or lesser way. God simply IS. And this means that any perfection that we would derive from existence is simply in God.

Aquinas uses this idea of God’s perfection to shed light on the scriptural passages that refer to different “perfections” of God like God’s knowledge. He looks at Romans 11:33, for example, “O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God” and Job 12:13 “With God is wisdom and strength, counsel and understanding” and Hebrews 4:13 “All things are naked and open to his eyes.” Aquinas’ explanation is metaphysical. Since God is simple being, God’s knowledge is not a perfection that exists apart from God’s being. As Levering writes, “God is his knowledge, and his knowing is infinite. Knowing is a perfection of His infinite Act” (86). Simple existence that God reveals of his identity in Scripture, from which all created things take their existence demands that God is also perfect and knowing.

But surely Levenson would argue that this is exactly the God that is not revealed in Scripture, but rather the philosophers’ god superimposed on the scriptural account. Levering would point to Scripture accounts of God not knowing, such as in Genesis 3 when he questions the woman. If God knew everything, why the questions?

Aquinas’ response to Levering is that Scripture clearly indicates that God is all-knowing. However, in describing the ways that human beings can relate to God, the authors of scripture sometimes portray God’s knowledge as incomplete, not because God’s knowledge is incomplete, but because human language is insufficient to describe the complex ways that human beings relate to God. Human beings know, to return to our last post, in an analogous fashion to the way God knows.

Human knowledge in Aquinas’ theory is obtained in two operations. The first operation, the sensitive operation, is when the sense perceptions like vision and hearing and touching perceive a particular object. Sense knowledge then is knowledge of particular things like a particular dog. The second operation is the intellective operation. Intellective knowledge is knowledge of universal things, that is, what makes this particular furry and barking thing in front of me a “dog.” So human knowledge proceeds from particular things to the ideas behind those things; that is, human knowledge processes from sensory knowledge to intellective knowledge of the ideas behind the sensory objects.

Another way of explaining this is with the distinction between form and matter (see this and this earlier post for more explanation). In Aquinas’ view, all things are composed of form, or the essence of what they are (the dogginess in the dog) and matter, the particular individuating “stuff” which makes one dog a particular dog and distinguishes it from other dogs. The sensory operation of knowledge perceives the various aspects of the dog like fur, four legs, paws, canine teeth. The intellective knowledge abstracts from the particular matter and judges the “thing” to be a dog. It is the intellect that allows a person to say that both a Chihuahua and a Doberman, despite their differences. That is, it is the intellective operation that allows a human to abstract the form “dog” from the particular substance.

Truth consists in the equality of the intellect with its object. True knowledge of a dog is when the intellect rightly abstracts the form “dog” from the particular substance, rather than abstracting the form “cat” or “bear” despite certain similarities in the particular matter.

God’s knowledge is different. God does not have a body, so obviously, God does not know things through a sensitive power. Nor is God’s knowledge a distinct power in God. As we established above, as simple Being, God is God’s own knowledge. So how does God know? God knows, according to Aquinas, because God is the cause of all things. God knows things because God makes them. God’s knowledge, therefore, (and this is the important part) is not affected by and dependent on what is known, but God’s knowledge is what causes anything to be known.

For humans, something must exist (even as an abstraction like a dinosaur) for it to be known. For God, it is the opposite. God must know anything for it to exist. God’s knowledge is logically and metaphysically prior to existence. God’s causative knowledge raises a huge theological problem, namely the problem of evil, because if God’s knowledge causes all things, then how can we say that God does not thereby cause evil. We will address this problem in another blog post. But for now, it is sufficient to address Jon Levenson’s claim that God has incomplete knowledge with the metaphysical claim that our knowledge is analogical to God’s. So we have to use analogical language to talk about God’s knowledge. God does not know through sensory perception like we do, nor does God know in stages of perceiving, abstracting, and judging like we do. God’s knowledge of a dog, in its essence, is metaphysically necessary (though not sufficient) for the dog to even exist, much less be known according to human knowledge.

What Language Can We Use to Talk About God?

According to Aquinas, there are two incorrect ways to understand language about God, which Aquinas summarizes in Summa Theologiae Ia, Q. 13. Univocal statements about God are statements that mean the same exact thing as the same statement said when referring to human creatures. If we say “God is wise” univocally, we mean that “wise” means the same thing as when we say “Beth is wise.” Aquinas says that we cannot use language to say anything univocally about God. We obviously mean something different when we say that God is wise than when we say that Beth is wise. Human wisdom is different, more limited, more restrictive, than divine wisdom.

The other erroneous way to speak about God that Aquinas identifies is equivocally. Equivocal statements about God mean something completely different than the same statement made in reference to human creatures. So if we use “God is wise” equivocally, what we mean is something completely unrelated to what we mean when we say “Beth is wise.” But Aquinas says that language about God cannot be totally equivocal. That is, there is some similarity, some connection in meaning between the statement “God is wise” and the statement “Beth is wise.” Human wisdom is not completely different than divine wisdom, or else we wouldn’t use the same word for it.

This is where scripture and metaphysics merge for Aquinas. Philosophically (metaphysically) and scripturally, Aquinas believes that we can say something about God. That is, we do not have to assume that our language is completely equivocal. He cites Romans 1:20 that something about God can be known through creation, thus, philosophically we can say something about God. And he believes as a Christian that what the Bible says about God is true, so we can in addition to natural knowledge of God (indicated in Romans 1:20), we can also have revealed knowledge of God.

So if language about God is not univocal or equivocal, what is it? Aquinas says that language about God is analogical. The example he uses is health. Health is a characteristic of a human body. If I say “I have a healthy heart,” what I mean is that my heart pumps blood well. When I say “I have a healthy body,” I do not mean only that my body pumps blood well, although this is certainly part of having a healthy body, but I mean something more expansive. I mean that all the parts of my body are functioning well, I have no illness, etc. So the two statements are not equivocal (meaning exactly the same thing) nor are the equivocal (meaning exactly different things). Rather, I use the phrase “healthy heart” analogically to “healthy body.”

So this is how we speak of God. When we say “Beth is wise,” we mean something analogical to what we mean when we say “God is wise.” Just like my heart has certain characteristics of health that my body does, so too, if I am wise, I have certain characteristics of God who is wise. But when we say “God is wise,” we mean something larger, something more expansive than what we mean when we say “Beth is wise.” According to Aquinas, just as a healthy heart partakes in the fullness of health of a healthy body, so too do creatures, who are created by God, partake in the attributes of God like goodness, justice, and wisdom.

But we should not stop here. In article 6 of question 13, Aquinas asks whether analogical language refers primarily to God or to creatures. He is asking a philosophical question here. Philosophically, if we say that analogical language refers primarily to creatures, what we are saying is that we have words (like “wise” and “good”) to refer to creatures, and we extrapolate from there and say that the fullness of the meaning of these words must belong to God. That is, we start with what we know about creatures and then raise all of that to the nth degree and say the same thing about God. So if “Beth is wise,” God must be the fullness of wisdom, since if God wasn’t, God would not be God. This is the philosophical (and specifically metaphysical way) of knowing something about God.

The philosophical way of knowing God starts with creatures and the words that we use to describe those creatures, and then posits a god that is based on what we already know, and usually like, about creatures. That is why people complain that the philosophers’ god is different from the Christian God as revealed in Scripture. People complain that people want to think that God is all-good and all-powerful, and so they logically construct a good who is such. This is what theists do. They say, “I believe in this type of god which is a god I can rationally conceive.” If God appears to get angry or vengeful or capricious in Scripture, a theist could say, “that is not the god that I believe in. My god is all-good, etc. We will see how Levering treats this in the next post, when he argues against Jon Levenson who claims that the philosophical god of people like Aquinas (all-good, all-knowing) is not the same as the God revealed in Scripture.

What is important to establish first in this post is that Aquinas does not take the philosophical way to knowing something about God. That is, he thinks that analogical language refers actually primarily to God, and secondarily of creatures. This means that if we say “Beth is wise,” what we first mean is that we know what wisdom is because God is the fullness of it. Beth shows certain similarities to that which we see first in God. So Beth is wise in a similar way—in an analogical way—that God is wise.

Aquinas argues this point from Scripture. He cites Ephesians 3:14-15 “I bow my knees to the Father, of our Lord Jesus Christ, of Whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named.” His argument is a scriptural one that we only know what fatherhood is because we first know it in God. So when I say “John is a father,” what I mean is that I see something similar in John that I see fully expressed in God. I can name something in John that I only know because it is in God. Same thing about wisdom. I can only say “Beth is wise” because I first see it revealed in God. Where? In Scripture. For Aquinas, the starting point of everything we know is not human reason which we explore philosophically; the starting point of everything we know is Scripture which reveals to us the living God.

And when we say that God is a living God, we are saying something analogical, not univocal or equivocal. What we mean when we say that “God is a living God” is that we only know what “living” means, and can apply it to creatures (Beth is a living blogger) because we first saw it revealed in God.

This will be important for subsequent discussions about God. For Aquinas, we only know that God is good because Scripture reveals that God is good (Exodus 33:19, 1 Chronicles 16:34), and so we can use the language of goodness to apply to creatures. We can say that God is wise only because Scripture reveals that God is wise (Job 12:16, Psalm 104:24), and what we know about human wisdom comes from this revelation.

Aquinas does not take the philosopher’s path to talking about, and knowing about God. That is, he does not assume that we start with human knowledge and extrapolate to God. We start off with knowledge of God revealed in Scripture and apply it to humans. Philosophy serves to illuminate what Scripture reveals. But philosophy is the handmaid, not the equivalent of scripture. When I say that Aquinas uses Scripture and metaphysics together to talk about God, I mean that Aquinas first uses scripture to know something about God, and uses philosophy to expand, in human language, that knowledge about God. And he does so by speaking about creatures and creaturely know in an analogous way to God.

YHWH: God’s Being as Simple Being

Continuing on with our examination of Matthew Levering’s Scripture and Metaphysics, in this post I will give a concrete, hopefully simple, example of how metaphysical speculation can enhance our understanding of Scripture.

In examining Scripture, there are numerous passages that refer to God’s body. In Exodus 33, God speaks to Moses face to face, and allows Moses to gaze upon his back. Psalm 33 anthropomorphically depicts God sitting on his throne in heaven and looking down on the earth to judge the righteous and the wicked. Scripture frequently refers to God’s “right hand” (Psalm 48:10, Acts 7:56). However, Christianity holds that God is not a body, but that God is a spirit. In light of the scriptural passages that say otherwise, how can Christianity hold such a belief?

Aquinas, as Matthew Levering points out, provides one such way of interpreting these seeming conflicting passages, by using metaphysical reflection to illumine the relevant passages of Scripture. He begins with John 4:24: “God is a spirit” as providing the basis of his metaphysical reflection (Ia, Q. 3, art. 1). He then goes on to say, in light of the biblical quotations which describe God in bodily terms, that the Bible “puts before us spiritual and divine things under the comparison of corporeal things” (Ia, Q. 3, art. 1, ad. 1). Aquinas’ point is that human language must rely on sensible images to describe God, though God is immaterial.

But how do we know this is the case? In light of the numerous Scripture passages that say otherwise, would it not make more sense to conclude that God has a body (and a spirit, to take into proper account John 4:24)? Aquinas uses metaphysical arguments to the contrary. First, a body is composed of matter, and it would be impossible for matter to be attributed to God. This is because matter exists in a state of potentiality.

Aquinas takes his understanding of potentiality from Aristotle. Aristotle’s definition of potentiality in the Metaphysics, is the “power that a thing has to produce change” or “the source of change in something else or in itself qua other.” (1046a12). The exercise of potentiality is movement or process (kinesis) or actuality (energeia). So a thing has potentiality in so far as it is capable of changing, and especially in so far as it is capable of taking on a better or more complete state of being.

We can think of potentiality as “potential energy” in physics. A stone sitting at the top of the hill has potential energy, which will be translated to movement (kinesis or kinetic energy) as the stone rolls down the hill and comes to a rest. But metaphysically, potentiality has a wider meaning that refers to states of being. An infant, for example, has potentiality to grow into an adult, thus taking on a more perfect or more complete state of being, because as an adult, the infant will be able to do more things properly ascribed to humans (walking, talking, reasoning, making art) that an infant cannot do.

According to Aristotle, everything in the universe can be described as a combination of form and matter. Matter is the raw material of things, whereas form is the structure of a thing or the “essence of what a thing is.” A woman and a gazelle are both composed of matter, and some of the same types of matter (like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen) but the two substances are distinguished by their form—the woman has the form of a human and the gazelle the form of the gazelle. All matter is in a state of potentiality because it could take on any number of forms. So matter is the “waiting to happen” part of existence; form is the “happening” part of existence. An infant’s matter will change over time, but the form, the essence of what that infant is, will remain constant, which is why the three year-old, 20 year-old, and 90 year-old “former infant” can still be said to be the same person.

Things that have bodies, therefore, are in a state of potentiality. They are changing, they are always in the process of becoming. So if God had a body, God would be in a state of change. But Aquinas, based on both Scripture and metaphysics, does not accept that God changes. He cites James 1:17 that in God “there is no change nor shadow of alteration” and Malachi 3:6 “For I the Lord do not change” and Numbers 23:19: “God is not as a man, that He should lie, nor as the son of man that He should be changed” (see Ia, Q. 14, art. 10 and Q. 19, art. 7) Using these passages of Scripture, Aquinas can then return to his metaphysical speculation—things that have bodies composed of matter are in a state of potentiality, and therefore they change. But God does not change. Thus, God must not have a body composed of matter.

Metaphysically, this informs Aquinas of something important. He accepts the Aristotelian dictum that all things are composed of matter and form or potentiality and actuality. But if God does not have matter, then God must be only form, and if God is only form, then God must be only actuality without any potentiality. Another way of saying this is that God is “pure Act” or the perfect fullness of “to be.” Moreover, things that are composed of matter and form are composites, but God is not composed of matter and form and therefore cannot be a composite. Thus, Aquinas concludes, that God is simple.

These are the two metaphysical assumptions which Aquinas bases all subsequent metaphysical reflection when discussing God’s existence: (1) God is pure Being or pure Act and (2) God is simple. Although he uses metaphysical language to make these claims, Aquinas is not doing pure metaphysical speculation. In other words, he is not just recapitulating the “static Aristotelian conception of the deity” as a “mere philosophical problem” (Levering 86) but is rather using Aristotelian metaphysics to illuminate an understanding of the God of Israel and this God’s relation to human history.

For Aquinas, the language of God as “pure Being” is not separable theologically from the revelation of “YHWH”: “The two names complement each other, revealing God’s historical presence as infinite, sheer, eternal Presence. They express the same God, understood metaphysically and historically” (Levering 61).

So why use the metaphysical language at all? Because, as we saw at the beginning of this post, Scripture uses language to refer to God that describes God in human terms, and as such, the language of Scripture can possibly dispose readers to idolatry, to create God according to a human image. According to Aquinas, as Levering points out in his book, the metaphysical language God ascribes to Godself in Exodus 3:14 is intended to wean God’s people from idolatry by revealing God as pure being and nothing more, without any particular mode of being (i.e. as simple) and consequently, and here is the important part, as sheer presence.

Because God does not have any particular mode of being, God is eternally present. As YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God is intimately active without being limited by temporality. There should be no doubt that Aquinas is not trying to create a philosopher’s God who is detached from creation, but is rather trying to use metaphysical language to illuminate the God who is intimately close to creation, who is personal, and eternally present. God as Aquinas describes him in the language of Greek metaphysics as Pure, Simple Being is also the living and creating God of Israel. On this point, Thomas Weinandy finds a unity of metaphysical and historical naming of God in Christian thought:

Within Greek though these attributes [e.g. imperishability, perfection, goodness, power] constitute God as one who is removed from, even if related to, all else that is. They constitute him as transcendent in the sense of not only making him other than the cosmic order, but also as often being incapable of actively relating to the cosmic order. Within the Judeo/Christian tradition these attributes do constitute God as wholly other than all else, but they equally constitute him as Creator and so immediately related to all else that is” (Weinandy, Does God Suffer?, 72)

So here we have one example of how Aquinas uses both Scripture and metaphysical reasoning to illuminate God as revealed in Scripture, namely, as a God who is simple (not composite form and matter but rather pure form without a body) and a God who is Pure Being.

1. Aquinas uses metaphysics to make sense of all those scriptural passages saying that God has a body. How do you make sense of those passages?
2. It is very important for Aquinas’ understanding of God that God does not have a body. In your mind, what difference does it make if God does or does not have a body?
3. Does describing God as “Pure Being” obscure or illuminate God as God is revealed in Scripture, especially in light of the fact that God gives the name YHWH “I am who I am” to Moses as the name by which God should be called.