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Aquinas and the God of the Bible

June 12, 2008

Roger Olson is one among many scholars who follow in line with Karl Barth’s critique of Medieval (particularly St. Thomas) concepts of natural theology and their effect on the doctrine of God.  Olson notes that Thomas’s “portrait of God seems quite foreign to the God of the scriptural narrative, who genuinely grieves and sorrows and even repents (relents) when people pray.” (The Story of Christian Theology, p. 342) Olson blames this on Thomas’s use of natural theology, that because God is One and immutable he resembles Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover more than the God of the Bible.  Joseph Owens notes that many Modern scholars hold that:

The remote detachment and aloofness of the Aristotelian prime mover remains irreconcilable with the Judeo-Christian God.  But Aquinas experienced no difficulty whatever in this regard. He approached the problem from the standpoint of the notion of being that he had found in Exodus.  God is by nature being. That is the name and nature proper to him. No one else can have that nature, for according to the Scriptures strange gods cannot be tolerated.  God alone had being as his nature.  Philosophically the unicity of subsistent existence was indicated. (“Aristotle and Aquinas” in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, p. 46)

Owens continues his opinion concerning Thomas’s doctrine of God in contradistinction to Olson’s view:

There is neither coldness nor insensitivity in this relationship of primary being to his creatures, despite the infinite abyss that separates the basic natures of creator and of creature. (Ibid., p. 47)

Thomas was influenced by Greek philosophy but he derived his understanding of God as Being from the Bible.  Olson said previously in his work: “Because of God’s utter simplicity of essence and complete actuality of being, God is not really related to creatures at all.  Relatedness itself would imply a kind of lack or need or imperfection in God.” (Ibid., p. 341) However, Thomas speaks of the relationship between God and man as “friendship”, painting a picture of an immenant God who listens to prayer and seeks the greatest good for his people.  He states in the Summa Contra Gentiles:

It is a part of friendship that people who love should wish the desire of those they love to be fulfilled, inasmuch as they want the good and the perfection of the ones they love.  This is why it is said to be proper to friends that they want the same thing.  Now it has been shown above [I.74.5] that God loves his creatures, and he loves each one the more, the more it shares in his own goodness, which is the first and primary object of his love.  Therefore he wants the desires of his rational creatures to be fulfilled, because they share most perfectly of all creatures in the goodness of God.  And his will is an accomplisher of things, because he is the cause of things by his will, as has been shown above [II.23]. So it belongs to the divine goodness to fulfill the desires of rational creatures which are put to him in prayer. (III.95)

Just because God does not change ad intra (within himself) does not mean that his actions ad extra (within creation) are the actions of a cold and alouf God.  Aristotle’s Prime Mover did not even have knowledge of things outside of himself.  He was just a logical necessity for the explanation of generation and corruption.  St. Thomas’s God is much different.  This type of criticism that Olson levels is common.  Fergus Kerr takes folks like him and the Barthians to task, so did Yves Congar and so does Timothy L. Smith, et al.  More on this later…

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