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St. Thomas’s “Five Ways” as Via Negativa

June 2, 2008

Contrary to all those who consider Aquinas to be, if not the father, at least the instigator of Cartesian rationalism Fergus Kerr argues that St. Thomas did not propose rational proofs in order to prove the existence of God through unaided human reason:

That God’s existence is something that does need to be argued for, Thomas holds, is based on the fact that we do not know what God’s nature is – as the doctrine of the divine simplicity will say.  In other words, the God who is present in the world as source and goal of all things is so much more mysterious than those who see signs of divinity everywhere believe that argument is required.  The point of insisting that argument for God’s existence is required is, then, not to convince hypothetical open-minded atheists, or even to persuade ‘fools’, so much as to deepen and enhance the mystery of the hidden God.  From the start, the ‘theistic proofs’ are the first lesson in Thomas’s negative theology.  Far from being an exercise in rationalistic apologetics, the purpose of arguing for God’s existence is to protect God’s transcendence (After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism, p. 58 )

So, the “Five Ways” are not proofs for Christians to debate with their atheist buddies.  They are not meant to infallibly prove God’s existence.  Quite the opposite; they are meant to demonstrate God’s incomprehensibility.  Furthermore, Aquinas’s negative theology can be seen in the manner in which he describes God, as Ipsum Esse Subsistens (Being in and of itself).  The Christian God cannot be known univocally and cannot be demonstrated apart from the authority of Sacred Scripture because he transcends all analogies.  Brian Davies notes, concerning the analogy of being:

… it makes sense to deny that God, like a creature, has being.  Rather, so he [Thomas] suggests, we might speak of God as Being Itself.  His meaning is not that God is an is-ing kind of thing.  His point is essentially a negative one.  Since the claim that God is Ipsum Esse Subsistens seems to be telling us what God is, one might expect Aquinas to defend it in an account of God’s properties or attributes.  But that is not what he does.  We cannot, he argues, know what God is.  We must content ourselves with considering “the ways in which God does not exist, rather than the ways in which he does.”  And it is here that his talk of God as Ipsum Esse Subsistens comes in.  It is part of an account of ways in which God does not exist.  Its chief purpose is to deny that God is a creature.  As some authors would say, it is an exercise in negative theology. (Thomas Aquinas:  Contemporary Philosophical Perspectives, p. 11)

For Thomas to hold that God is Being is for him to hold that God is not being.  The “Five Ways” seen in this light are just as much the “Five Ways” in which God does not exist as they are the “Five Ways” in which he does by necessity.  

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2008 6:54 pm

    I just started reading Kerr the other day. Good stuff.

  2. June 5, 2008 9:55 am

    Indeed.

  3. June 7, 2008 6:54 am

    What you say here has to be balanced against the fact that St. Thomas says “the existence of God can be proven in five ways”.

    If one wants to distinguish Descartes from St. Thomas, there is ample evidence for opposing them in Descartes’s own words- not the least of which is that he explicitly opposes his own philosophy to all scholastic thought!

    There are simpler ways to deal with the sorts of distinctions you are making here. It is true, I think, that the five ways were not written for apologetic purposes (yet one would have a difficult time explaining why most of these proofs are also found in a book that was written specifically to argue with Muslims and non-believers: sc. “the Summa Contra Gentiles” ) At the same time, to deny that something is apologetic is not to affirm that it must be of the faith. There is a middle ground of faith seeking understanding, with the stress that it seeks a real understanding. Faith gives us the strength to stick with an argument that we could have found by our own reason, but which we would never expect to have enough strength to find, if we counted on our own strength. In my experience with the five ways, this is absolutely necessary. Atheists and non-believers might have enough mental light to know the proofs, but they lack the desire to come to the truth, and it is too easy for them to bail out at the first opportunity, taking an objection or a difficulty in the proofs as decisive, when in fact it is not.

    While the proofs look easy, they are very difficult, and I have never met an atheist who could even explain how the argument went, or who knew basic facts needed to understand the proofs (like the distinction between act and potency). Never.

  4. June 7, 2008 10:10 am

    Thomist,

    First of all, thanks for stopping by. It’s always good to see that other people are actually interested in these topics. Secondly, to your comment:

    “At the same time, to deny that something is apologetic is not to affirm that it must be of the faith. There is a middle ground of faith seeking understanding, with the stress that it seeks a real understanding.”

    I’m not quite sure what you mean here.

    Just to clarify I’ll sum up what I think you said from the start:
    1. Thomas says the “five ways” can prove God’s existence.
    2. Descartes clearly sets himself apart from St. Thomas
    3. The “five ways” were most likely not meant for apologetic purposes.

    My reply to these:

    1. True enough – and I appreciate your concern for balance.
    2. Also true. This is actually one of the points that annoys me the most. Those who taught me apologetics in the past completely disregarded St. Thomas because they considered his “five ways” to be sub-Christian rationalism. Most Protestants tend to be very anachronistic when it comes to pre-Reformation history.
    3. Most Thomas scholars agree that he was not aiming his “five ways” against atheists (as we know atheists). In that sense these proofs were not meant for apologetics. On the other hand we can’t deny (as you pointed out) that the Summa Contra Gentiles was a training manual for missionaries to minister to the Muslims. As Thomas says, “… against the Jews we are able to argue by means of the Old Testament, while against the heretics we are able to argue by means of the New Testament. But the Mohammedans and the pagans accept neither the one nor the other. We must, therefore, have recourse to the natural reason, to which all men are forced to give their assent.” (SCG I.ii.3)

    As to your above quote: It seems to me that if the “faith seeking understanding” approach is the middle way then to deny that something is apologetic (i.e. meant for unbelievers) is to affirm that faith is required as a prerequisite. I must clarify here what I said above in #3. I do think the “five ways” can be used for apologetics, but different methods are required for different unbelievers, as Thomas says in the above quote. My point has been that the “five ways” were not designed for atheists.

    Thanks,

    Eric

  5. June 7, 2008 11:14 am

    There’s also the issue of “proof.”

    The five ways do not “logically entail” God, as many an atheist has been quick to point out.

    This was never their intent, though. Rather, they are means of bringing one to the edge of our knowledge. They show him the great chasm of mystery and the need for God.

    And that’s where the “faith” comes in to “seek understanding.”

    Modern notions of “proof” suppose that the understanding comes first, and that’s where Aquinas is not in their camp.

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