Today’s Aquinas: How Far Toward God Can We Reason?

Today’s Aquinas: How Far Toward God Can We Reason? June 8, 2015

ThomasAquinas We’re blogging through St. Thomas Aquinas’ Compendium Theologiae, sometimes called his Shorter Summa. Find the previous posts here.

In the preceding  thirty-five chapters, Thomas has been addressing natural theology, reasoning about God in the Aristotelian manner from first principles and what we can observe about the world around us:

The truths about God thus far proposed have been subtly discussed by a number of pagan philosophers, although some of them erred concerning these matters. And those who propounded true doctrine in this respect were scarcely able to arrive at such truths even after long and painstaking investigation.

The difficulty is that this kind of reasoning is hard, hard to do and hard to get right; Thomas’ use of Aristotle’s ideas goes well beyond Aristotle, but then Thomas knew where he was headed.  This is an important point: while we as Catholics believe that our faith is rational, that is, that it accords with reality, the grace of God always plays the primary role in our acceptance of that faith.  That it is consistent with reality is necessary (after all, God is Truth), but though many of us are attracted to God as Truth it is only by God’s grace that we come to belief in Him.

At this point, one might ask: how did Christianity theology get mixed up with Greek philosophy to begin with?

Consider: the Hebrew scriptures speak of an almighty God, greater than all the gods of the nations: a God who made all of creation simply by speaking.  This is a commonplace to those of us who have grown up in a Christian or post-Christian milieu, but other creation myths, even from the same general time and place, are entirely different.  This is a God who is not to be imaged, who was not brought into being by other gods, and who told Moses that His name is “I Am Who Am”.

The Greek philosophers were themselves well aware that the Greek gods were unsatisfactory from an intellectual point of view.  Zeus is king of the gods, but he is not the First Cause; no one would ever have accused him of being the First Cause.  The Platonists talked about the logos, the divine word; Aristotle talked about the First Uncaused Cause, which must eternally exist.  But Aristotle’s First Cause was an aloof God, wholly unconcerned with the doings of men.  Or, at least, there was no reason to think otherwise.

But then you get these two ideas together: a God, the ultimate cause of everything, that, uncaused, must ever exist…what if this God was concerned with men, and what if this God chose to reveal Himself to men?  What would it look like?

But I digress.

Not only is natural theology hard, but it only goes so far…and at this point we’ve gone as far as we can.  Thomas, consequently, now turns to the truths of revelation:

But there are other truths about God revealed to us in the teaching of the Christian religion, which were beyond the reach of the philosopher. These are truths about which we are instructed, in accord with the norm of Christian faith, in a way that transcends human perception. The teaching is this: although God is one and simple, as has been explained, God is Father, God is Son, and God is Holy Spirit. And these three are not three gods, but are one God. We now turn to a consideration of this truth, so far as is possible to us.

So far as it is possible to us: there’s the rub.  As St. Paul tells us, now we see through a glass, darkly.  All of our thinking and writing about the Trinity is grasping at something that is beyond human reach.  As Catholics, we must hold to this: God is One, and God is Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We must neither “divide the substance”, nor “confuse the persons”…but that’s a topic for subsequent chapters.


photo credit: Public Domain; source Wikimedia Commons

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