St. Thomas: Faith Must Precede Reason

The Augustinianism of Thomas Aquinas is often neglected, partly because he does not go to great lengths to prove his theological pedigree – it is assumed in many places.  The following quote, in which Thomas is stating the errors into which one may fall while studying sacred doctrine, places him within the tradition of  fides quaerens intellectum:

[O]ne may err because in matters of faith he makes reason precede faith, instead of faith precede reason, as when someone is willing to believe only what he can discover by reason.  It should in fact be just the opposite.  Thus Hillary says: ‘Begin by believing, inquire, press forward, persevere.'” (Expositio super librum Boethii De trinitate, Q. 2, a.1, resp.)


The Telos of the City of Man: The Effects of Sin on Natural Law


Tower of Babel

Now there was need for man to receive a precept about loving God and his neighbor, because in thus respect the natural law had become obscured on account of sin:  but not about the duty of loving oneself, because in this respect the natural law retained its vigor: or again, because love of oneself is contained in the love of God and of one’s neighbor:  since the true self-love consists in directing oneself to God. (ST I-II, Q. 100, a. 5.)

This is important since many think that Thomas considered the faculty of reason to be unaffected by original sin. Further, we must remember that the natural law does not consist of innate propositional knowledge per se but is a reflection of creation working in a certain order.  Animals seek to fulfill their own natural inclinations toward the ends for which they were created.  Humans seek to order the passions in accord with reason for the purpose of achieving happiness.  Complete natural law must be Christian; not because faith takes the place of natural knowledge, but because the natural man will never order his passions toward the true telos, which is God himself, without divine guidance.  Of course no one’s nature will be perfected until that final end has been fulfilled, and so not even a Christian will function according to a complete natural law.  That is why we need divine revelation.  

But, does this leave us saying that the natural man’s use of practical reason is the same as that of the Christian? Yes and no.  The two may look identical.  We both live in the City of Man, acquiring the virtues that pertain to that city, and we both make mistakes – horrible ones at that.  However, there is also the “no” part of the answer.  If Thomas believed there was a need for man to receive a precept for loving God and loving one’s neighbor and that this precept did not contradict natural liberty but somewhat restored it (not w/out his grace of course)  then it seems that the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity function in some way to restore the natural law.  Thomas says that when Adam lost his original justice he also lost the ability to easily order his passions by the use of natural law – reason directing the will to the right end.  

Should we say that the supernatural virtues only count for the City of God and therefore do not perfect man’s behavior in the City of Man?  I definitely think we should avoid the idea that just because a society is Christian or that by Christianizing culture in its various forms it will be better than the city of the noble pagans.  Should we force the bluebirds to sing Gospel? or paint crosses on all the rocks and trees? Nature does not need our help to be Christian.  This is exactly my point.  Nature is perfected by grace, the natural law by the supernatural virtues. Ransom raised Mr. Bultitude (a bear) up to a higher level of being – he didn’t just paint a cross on his chest (I’m referring to That Hideous Strength).  A twisted nature needs grace both to heal and perfect. The City of Man will become the City of God from the inside out.  If the natural law within a person becomes more perfect by being directed to God, the true end of all things, then I believe it should be our hope that this participation in the New Jerusalem will produce supernatural effects within our earthly city.  The whole universe is being sharpened and brought to a point.  The telos for the City of God ends with the vision of his essence.  The telos for the City of Man and the “natural law” that governs it ends in nothingness. When Merlin asked Ransom if they could not, as a last resort, look to the noble heathen for help against that hideous strength Ransom shook his head, “You do not understand,” he said:  

The poison was brewed in the West lands but it has spat itself everywhere by now.  However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren beds:  men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshipping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and from the Father in Heaven.  You might go East so far that East became West and you returned to Britain across the great Ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light.  The shadow of the dark wing is over all Tellus. (C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, p. 290)

We should recognize the lineaments of man’s first abode that still remain in the City of Man but we should also be aware of its end and the goal of the reason of its citizen. 

Aquinas on Civic and Infused Virtue

A human being is not only a citizen of the earthly city, but is also a member of the heavenly city of Jerusalem, which is governed by the Lord and has as its citizens the angels and all the saints, whether they are already reigning in glory and at rest in their homeland, or still pilgrims on earth, as St. Paul says in Ephesians 2:10, “You are fellow-citizens of the saints and members of the household of God”, and so on. But for us to become members of this heavenly city, our own nature is not enough; we need to be lifted up to this by the grace of God.  For it is clear that the virtues of a human being qua member of this city cannot be acquired just through what is natural to him. These virtues, therefore, are not caused through our actions, but infused in us by God’s gift.  (Thomas Aquinas, Disputed Questions on the Virtues, pp. 54, 55)

Aquinas is here making a distinction that he obviously gets from Augustine’s distinction between the earthly city and the heavenly city in his City of God.  As I’ve shown in previous posts this notion was picked up by Peter Martyr and Martin Luther.  This distinction between the good coram humano and the good coram Deo was also used by John Calvin and many others within the Reformed world. This should help demonstrate Frederick Copleston’s thesis that a stark dichotomy should not be seen between Augustine and Aquinas. Aquinas used Aristotle to systematize what he considered to be a thoroughly Augustinian Theology.

Vermigli on the Divine Ideas

I found this passage from Vermigli’s commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics very interesting.  In the context he is discussing the theory of Plato’s Ideas and their relevancy to the topic of the Good.  This clearly shows the Platonic influence on Vermigli’s thinking, which is mediated through Augustine – he even says at one point that because Dionysius accepted Plato’s theory of Ideas “his opinion is not thoroughly absurd.” In this passage he discusses how God’s essence, which is one, can be the exemplar of many things.  He says:

The concept of ideas is derived from existing crafts; a craftsman cannot create anything without an archetype, neither can a painter or sculptor produce anything he has not previously conceived in his mind.  What is different, though, is that craftsmen devise creations in their minds through some industry and labor, while God has such ideas naturally implanted in him. Moreover, such ideas are distinguished in the minds of the craftsmen materially, whereas in God they are differentiated only rationally …. We say therefore that the divine nature is one and uniform and that it is most perfect; moreover, even if creatures imitate it they do not imitate it in its entirety, nor in the same manner or extent.  Therefore, just as the divine essence is referred to as a pattern for various species, at the same time different degrees of perfection may be noticed or distinguished in it, although not materially but theoretically.  Thus, since God considers himself a pattern to be imitated and mirrored in his creations in various degrees according to their characteristics, he is said to be contemplating his own ideas that, even if hidden from us, are rendered clear through the things he produces.  Therefore in the letter to the Hebrews, it is said, “By faith we understand that the world was created, so that what is seen was made out of things that do not appear.”  And in the letter to the Romans it says, “Since the creation of the world and through those things that have been made, the invisible nature of God is revealed” to philosophers. (Peter Martyr Vermigli, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, pp. 140, 142)

After this digression from the main topic Vermigli even speaks of the Ideas as important for his doctrine of providence and predestination – it’s too bad that Frank James doesn’t mention this in his book Peter Martyr Vermigli and Predestination.  I find this all very interesting, especially because Vermigli must have been aware of St. Thomas’s use of the Ideas in the mind of God to explain Aristotle’s noesis noeseos.

Exodus 3:14 and God as Being

**The purpose of this post is not to give a grammatical historical interpretation of the above mentioned text nor to set up the opinion of the Reformers et al as the bastion of Truth.  The purpose is to demonstrate that certain traditions of interpretation were carried on by the Reformers et al, thus marking a plane of continuity between them and the Scholastics.  Secondly, although I disagree with particular methods and opinions of John Frame I must admit my indebtedness to his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.  If it were not for Van Til and Van Tillians such as Frame I probably would not even be reading books. They definitely awakened me out of a fundamentalist lethargy and anti-intellectualism. Ironic, aye?

John Frame thinks Aquinas’s (and other “Scholastics”) interpretation of Exodus 3:14 (God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”) is way too old-timey (i.e. Medieval). For those who don’t know Aquinas interpreted the sum qui sum (greek: ho on) of this passage to mean that God is ipsum esse subsistens (subsistent Being). He says in his Summa:

This name HE WHO IS is most properly applied to God … because of its signification. For it does not signify form, but simply existence itself. Hence since the existence of God is His essence itself, which can be said of no other, it is clear that among other names this one specially denominates God, for everything is denominated by its form. (ST I. Q.13, a.11)  

Therefore, because God does not receive existence from a different source than himself his existence is his essence, and it is he who gives existence (i.e. being) to all of creation.  Also, “Existence” is not a univocal term, as if God exists in the same way the Statue of Liberty does.  Aquinas explains:

As we read in the book of Causes, God’s existing is individually distinguished from all other existing by the very fact that it is an existing subsistent in itself, and not one supervening on a nature other than existing itself. (Quaestiones Disputate de Potentia, Q. 7, a.2)

One could and should ask why Aquinas interprets God’s revelation of himself in this passage as ipsum esse subsistens.  Fran O’Rourke says that he does this for two reasons.  First, because God refers to himself as sum qui sum (Vulgate).  Second, because Dionysius interprets it ontologically as well.  He says, “Aquinas discovered in reliance upon Dionysius both the theological and ontological signification of this passage.” (O’Rourke, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas, p. 131) Of course Aquinas was just as much an Augustinian as he was a follower of Dionysius and Aristotle.  For example, compare Aquinas’s interpretation of sum qui sum from his Summa with St. Augustine’s statement in the City of God:

… understand that which God spoke by the angel when He sent Moses to the children of Israel:  “I am that I am.”  For since God is the supreme existence, that is to say, supremely is, and is therefore unchangeable, the things that He made He empowered to be, but not to be supremely like Himself. (XII.2)

Therefore, the interpretation of the sum qui sum of Exodus 3:14 as Subsistent Being in Aquinas is just as much Augustinian as Neo-Platonic.  And guess what else.  It’s Calvinistic.  Here’s how Calvin interprets this same passage in Exodus:

The verb in the Hebrew is in the future tense, “I will be what I will be:” but it is of the same force as the present, except that it designates the perpetual duration of time.  This is very plain, that God attributes to himself alone divine glory, because he is self-existent and therefore eternal; and thus gives being and existence to every creature. (Harmony of the Four Last Books of Moses)

This interpretation of Calvin’s is almost identical with that of Augustine and Aquinas.  In fact Richard Muller points out that this position was also held by many of the later orthodox reformed theologians.  He states:

Following out the medieval tradition, Mastricht rests the doctrine of the essence and independence of God on Exodus 3:13-14, specifically on God’s answer to Moses’ question concerning his name:  Mastricht renders the answer, “ero qui ero,” “I will be who I will be,” noting that the Hebrew might also be rendered “sum qui sum.” His sensitivity to the implications of the Hebrew verb reflects the arguments of Reformers like Bullinger and Musculus and of early orthodox writers like Zanchi and Polanus, just as his doctrinal conclusions echo the results of exegesis in his time:  Diodati, for example, interpreted the text as saying “I am the only true God, truly subsisting, & not only through the opinion of men as Idols are; I am he that have an everlasting beeing, unchangeable, substisting of its self, not depending from others, infinite, most simple, the author and cause of the beeing of all things:  not a borrowed, changeable, finite, dependent, and compounded being, etc. as all other creatures have.” (Muller, PRRD, Vol. 3, The Divine Essence and Attributes, p. 233)

Muller notes that this Reformed interpretation is not a proof-texting for certain metaphysical and rationalist presuppositions.  He notes, “Here too, we are not encountering a rank proof-texting, but rather an application of the older hermeneutic whereby either direct declarations of Scripture or conclusions capable of being drawn from the text are understood as the basis of vaild [sic] teaching.” (Ibid., p. 237) John Frame, in critiquing Aquinas’s interpretation is also critiquing an Augustinian and Reformed interpretation.  Furthermore, he is not quite clear about why he believes it to be erroneous.  He says:

This text, plus a number of premises from Platonic (especially Neoplatonic) and Aristotelean philosophy, forms the basis for a rather complicated metaphysical theory of the divine being that has influenced many theological discussions of the doctrine of God.  The relationship of this theory to Scripture is rather tenuous, especially if we reject, as I think we should, Aquinas’s interpretation of Exodus 3:14. (The Doctrine of God, p. 220)

Frame then goes on to state charitably that Aquinas had a deep desire to maintain a Creator/creature distinction.  He even catalogues certain Scholastic definitions such as essence, substance, being, form, etc. in order to give his readership a greater contextual knowledge.  However, despite Frame’s statement of his opinion that Aquinas’s interpretation of Exodus 3:14 should be trashed he never offers a more thorough critique than:

… we should remember that Aquinas and his followers distinguished quite sharply between divine and human being, between Being and beings.  All the same, the structure seems rather univocal for a thinker, Aquinas, who elsewhere insists that all, or at least most of our language about God is analogical. (Ibid., p. 223)

This critique, Frame informs the reader, is based on the fact that Aquinas does not discuss the anologia entis in his De ente et essentia. (Ibid., p. 224) Firstly, I almost can’t make sense of that argument (is that even an argument?).  Secondly, the De ente et essentia, according to Jean-Pierre Torrell, was one of Aquinas’s early works in which he makes certain statements in agreement with Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina that he would later be more cautious about (due to certain controversies).  Thirdly, Aquinas is very clear in his Summa and in the passage quoted above from Quaestiones Disputate de Potentia that God’s Being is hyperousion (beyond being). Frame’s opinion here stated is simply wrong. 

Frame continues stating, “I have no problem affirming that God is a necessary being, but on the basis of Scripture … rather than on specifically Thomistic premises.” (Ibid., p. 224) With this statement one can sense Frame’s presuppositions regarding Medieval Scholasticism – he also says that the scholastic concepts are “an unnecessary complication.”  As I shall discuss in a following post Frame presupposes that the Scholastics used terms based on autonomous reasoning to subvert the Biblical text and distort the original meaning, accepting instead the presuppositions of Greek philosophy.  I shall deal with this contention later.  For now it has been my point to demonstrate at least two points in regard to John Frame’s critique of Aquinas’s interpretation of Exodus 3:14: (1) Because Frame fails to realize and note the fact that his critique of Aquinas is also a critique of a traditionally Christian and Reformed hermeneutic his presentation of the problem as “Scholasticism” cannot be more than a caricature. (2) Because Frame’s disagreements with Aquinas on this point are never substantiated beyond mere conjecture and opinion he leaves the reader suspicious at best of a straw man fallacy.  This also makes the reader suspicious of Frame’s motive in attacking Aquinas.  Is his motive based on scholarship or a bias toward a particular apologetic method?  Stay tuned…

Gregory of Nyssa on Universals

According to F. Copleston the Greek Fathers were generally influenced by Platonism and neo-Platonic philosophy.  He says of St. Gregory:

St. Gregory’s “Platonism” in regard to universals comes out clearly in his De hominis opificio, where he distinguishes the heavenly man, the ideal man, the universal, from the earthly man, the object of experience. The former, the ideal man or rather ideal human being, exists only in the divine idea and is without sexual determination, being neither male nor female:  the latter, the human being of experience, is an expression of the ideal and is sexually determined, the ideal being, as it were, ‘splintered’ or partially expressed in many single individuals.  Thus, according to Gregory, individual creatures proceed by creation, not by emanation, from the ideal in the divine Logos.  This theory clearly goes back to neo-Platonism and to Philonism, and it was adopted by the first outstanding philosopher of the Middle Ages, John Scotus Eriugena, who was much influenced by the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa. (History of Philosophy, Vol. 2: Augustine to Scotus, p. 33)