Results tagged “Epistemology” from Reformation21 Blog

Aquinas Reconsidered (Part 2)


Oliphint's discussion of Aquinas' view of God draws heavily on the claims of Cornelius Van Til, one of whose basic points of critique is that Aquinas' "idea of the analogy of being compromises the biblical doctrine of creation."1 In Van Til's view,  the notion of an analogy of being comes directly from Aristotle and reduces the distinction between the Creator and the creature by adopting the Greek philosophical assumption that "all being is essentially one" and that "all individual beings are being to the extent that they participate in this one ultimate being."2 What Van Til missed is that if Aquinas assumed "all being" is "essentially one," he would have had no need for analogy and simply identified the same attributes in God and in human beings as predicated univocally. But since Aquinas clearly affirms the Creator-creature distinction, resting on creation ex nihilo, he argued for non-univocal, namely analogical predication. Failure to understand the connection between Aquinas' understanding of analogy and his doctrine of creation is also characteristic of Oliphint's critique.

Oliphint also makes several crucial mistakes in his interpretation of Aquinas' proofs of the existence of God. He dismisses Aquinas' use of Exodus 3:14 as insufficient to show the Christian context in which the proofs are deployed on the rather slim ground that, had Aquinas really intended to be biblical, he would not simply have cited the verse he would have "shown how the content of revelation grounded his arguments" instead of proceeding by "natural reason."3 But citation of texts, presumably interpreted exegetically elsewhere, is a common practice, and this understanding of Exodus 3:14, rooted in Augustine, was a commonplace--not, by the way, available to "natural reason."

Nor is the citation of Exodus 3:14 the only indication of a theological and biblical backdrop to the proofs: in the first article, on whether the existence of God is self evident, Aquinas bases his argument with an objection drawn from John of Damascus' De fide orthodoxa and John 14:6--and then counters the objections with a point from Aristotle's Metaphysics interpreted by way of a reference to Psalm 52:1. In the second article, whether it can be demonstrated that God exists, draws objections from Hebrews 11:1 and from John of Damascus, countering them with a citation of Romans 1:20. Then, when Aquinas poses the question leading to the proofs of whether God exists, he offers no references in his objections and counters them with Exodus 3:14. The process of argument is on the basis of reason, but the argument with the objectors is an argument among Christians.

The second mistake is also categorical one: it concerns the issue of precisely what Aquinas thought he was proving. Oliphint represents Cajetan as teaching that the "proofs only demonstrated properties that could apply to a god, but not to God himself," (p. 90, n77) but what Cajetan actually held was that the proofs do not demonstrate the existence of God "per se" but "quasi per accidens," his point being that the proofs establish properties that, as Aquinas himself put it, "everyone understands to be God."4 These are not merely possible properties of "a god"--they are the presumed properties of the one and only God.

Another mistake concerns Oliphint's reading of Aquinas' cosmological proof. Oliphint draws on Stephen Davis to argue that "for any version of the cosmological argument to work, the conclusion must presuppose some aspect of temporal causality" and concludes that since Aquinas' does not place God into a temporal sequence, Aquinas' proof fails (p. 81). Aquinas, however, assumed creation ex nihilo and that there is no time, finite or infinite, before the moment of creation.  Aquinas' view of the impossibility of an infinite sequence of causes, therefore, does not rely on temporal sequence but follows precisely what Davis assumed might produce a valid argument, namely, an essential or ontological sequence of the hierarchy of causes in which contingent being (even if it were in an infinite temporal sequence) is not sufficient to explain its own existence.5 Indeed, contra Oliphint, Davis concludes that Aquinas rightly recognized that "No hierarchical causal series can regress infinitely; it must have a beginning."6

One particular aspect of Aquinas' approach to the traditional notion of divine simplicity comes to the fore in Oliphint's discussion, namely, the relationship between simplicity and the doctrine of the Trinity. His discussion is focused on a distinction between esse and id quod est. Oliphint has the correct translation of id quod est as "that which is," but his definition is wrong: "that which is" does not mean "essence or nature" (pp. 105, 130). Aquinas uses the Boethian esse-id quod est distinction to indicate the same issue as his own essence-existence distinction, which points directly toward Aquinas' stress on God as "He who is" (Exodus 3:14).

Oliphint's Van Tilian critique not only ignores what Aquinas actually argues, it is also quite untenable, whether from a historical, theological, or philosophical perspective. Thus, Oliphint:

If we begin with biblical revelation, however (something that Thomas's natural theology cannot do) we can begin with, instead of the categories of esse and id quod est, the one essence of God as three hypostases, or subsistences. In other words, we can begin, contrary to Aquinas, with the ontological Trinity. With these biblical categories in view, we are able to affirm both that God's essence is who he is and that there is no possibility that he could be otherwise, and that each of the three subsistences can and does act as that one essence (p. 109).

Pace Oliphint, distinction between essentia and subsistentia is not directly given in biblical revelation. It took the church more than three centuries after the close of the canon to arrive at this terminological solution to the problem of divine triunity. Aquinas, moreover, both confesses the doctrine and meditates at length on the issue of one essence in three subistences or hypostases. It is not clear why the post-biblical distinction between essence and subsistence, as used to explain the biblical issue that God is One and is also Father, Son, and Spirit, is any more "biblical" than the distinction between esse and id quod est, as used to explain the biblical point that God is Who He is.

Even with the post-biblical trinitarian language in view, we are quite unable to make clear "that God's essence is who he is and that there is no possibility that he could be otherwise." A series of qualifications of the term essence must be added, including the point that in God there is no real distinction between essence and existence, a point, as Aquinas indicated, that can be gathered from Exodus 3:14. Just setting forth the trinitarian formula of one essence and three hypostases does not satisfy the requirement for affirming, in Oliphint's words, "that each of the three subsistences can and does act as that one essence." Indeed, just to say that each of the three subsistences "can and does act" as one essence itself is a problematic usage that verges on tritheism: the issue of the trinitarian formula is that the three subsistences are the one essence. In order to complete the doctrine and clearly affirm that the three subsistences are the essence in such a way as not to imply composition, the doctrine of simplicity also needs to be present.   And it is present in Aquinas' theology, and was present in the major patristic and Reformed orthodox formulations concerning the Trinity.

All of these aspects of Oliphint's argument are problematic, but they do not quite rise to the level of the underlying problem, namely, that Oliphint confuses epistemology with ontology. Both Aquinas and the Reformed orthodox writers begin with prolegomenal discussions in which Scripture is set forth as the primary authority in doctrinal matters--so that both actually do begin biblically. Neither Aquinas nor the Reformed orthodox begin with the "ontological Trinity" because both recognize that the proper beginning point of knowledge (as distinct but not separate from faith) cannot be a point of doctrine like the Trinity that is neither self-evident nor demonstrable. Oliphint has confused the principium essendi with the principium cognoscendi, and has failed to recognize that cognitive principia, more generally understood, are self-evident, incontestable notions, some directly available to reason, some given by revelation.

To be continued in part 3...

1. Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Nutley: P&R, 1969), p. 160; cf. idem, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (S.l.: Den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1969), p. 60.

2. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. 60; idem, Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 160.

3. Oliphint, Aquinas, pp. 60-61, referencing McInerny's reading of the preambles; cf. ibid., pp. 27, 51.

4. Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia, q.2, a.3, corpus.

5. Cf. Matthew Levering, Proofs of God: Classical Arguments from Tertullian to Barth (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), p. 66, especially note 165.

6. Stephen T. Davis, God, Reason and Theistic Proofs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), p. 73.

*This is the second post in a short series by Dr. Muller

What Do You Know?


In January, Meet the Puritans began a new series studying Richard Muller's Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Join Danny Hyde in Week 6 as he discusses not just what we know, but how we know:

What's theology? What does God know? What can we know? How do we know what we know? How do we know what we know is true? And how do we express it? That's what this week's reading is all about. Muller deals with the Reformed Orthodox discussion of the parts of true theology, so helpfully distinguished by Franciscus Junius as theologia archetypa, God's own knowledge of himself, and theologia ectypa, what we know of God.

Why this distinction? One of the insights Martin Luther rested on was the late medieval critique of Thomas Aquinas by men like John Duns Scotus. Aquinas said there was an anaology of being between God and man; Scotus said it was impossible for man to derive a description of God apart from an authoritative testimony from God himself. Hence Luther's theology of the cross--what God revealed--took precedence over the theology of glory--what God has kept hidden. John Calvin added to this the radical effects of original sin upon the mind of man so much so that apart from God's self-revelation, true knowledge of God is inaccesible to us. Therefore, Reformed Orthodox writers distinguished theology as God knows it (theologia archetypa) from theology as we creatures can know it (theologia ectypa), whether in this life as pilgrims (theologia viatorum) or the life to come (theologia beatorum). In other words, we as creatures before the Fall, after the Fall in sin, after redemption in Christ, and even in glory, are limited in what we can know of God. We know what God knows is reality; and what we can know is tethered to whatever he decides to reveal to us in a manner appropriate for our creaturely capacity.

Why is this distinction important? Let me illustrate...

Read more at Meet the Purtians today! 


Mr. Moral Magoo?


I'm sure there's a generational gap when someone refers to Mr. Magoo. If you're under 30, there's a good chance that you've probably never heard of Mr. Magoo. I just so happened to have watched enough classic cartoons over the years to have seen a few episodes. Mr. Magoo is a cartoon about a legally blind man who blundered around the city, never knowing where he was going or what he was doing. And yet he always seemed to end up in the right place. By the end of the episode, Mr. Magoo had tripped off of girders only to land on another girder exactly in the right place. It made no sense, but he always seemed to survive by the end of an episode. He accidentally made it every time. He had always gone the wrong way and ended up at the right place.

I wonder how many of us have good theology and solid moral positions, but we have no idea how we got to them. Many in the Church have "Magooed" themselves into moral and theological positions that happen to be biblically sound, but we have no idea how we got there. If someone asked us why we believe or do what we do, we couldn't give an answer for it beyond our own cultural norms.

Christians, of all people, need to understand that the why of our moral and theological positions is just as crucial as the what of our moral and theological positions. Here is one example of that about which I am thinking: 

In the south, when I read Scripture that relates to human sexuality, there is very little pushback. When I read Paul's words regarding homosexual behavior in the south, I am preaching to the choir. I still never have anyone come up to me after the service and say that they need to talk about what I said - maybe people are thinking it, but there isn't any obvious pushback. For most, I hope, this is because they're been exposed to the teachings of Scripture and submit themselves willingly and joyfully to God's own revealed will about biblical morality.

However, I suspect that many have simply inherited a proclivity toward the normativity of heterosexual even though they really have never been persuaded from Scripture that this is God's revealed will. Perhaps they personally find the idea repulsive, or they've never had friends with same-sex attraction, and maybe they've spent their whole lives just never even thinking much about the struggle that some people may have. "Of course it's sinful! I find it gross!" But if you asked them why, their answer would be thin and cultural, not thick and biblical. At this point we start to see that there is a very thin line (in fact, one might argue there's no difference at all) between bigotry and culturally inherited bias against homosexuality. It's a moral position that they are correct about, but only by accident.

Another example of this "magooing" of theology has to do with the issue of complementarianism. If our view that only men should be in leadership roles in the church is culturally inherited, but we really couldn't tell you how we got there from Scripture, then that is sexism. Apart from the command and teaching of Scripture, what we end up having is a culturally inherited belief that men are superior to women and therefore that men ought to lead the church, not women.

In both of these examples, what the church needs is a theologically robust understanding of what the Scripture says about human sexuality and about human sexual behavior. We need to encourage our churches to dig down deep into the text and ask ourselves, "What has God said?"

There is a practical reason why we must do this: if our moral and theological positions are only culturally informed, then they can be devastated by a more persuasive cultural norm when it shows its face. In fact, we see this happening quite a lot right now. It seems like the last two or three years have shown that many in the evangelical community had magooed themselves into their views of human sexuality and have been just as easily moved out of them.

Their views were thin and cultural, not thick and biblical. And so when they met someone who shattered their preconceptions about homosexuality, or when they had a son or daughter that revealed they were same-sex-attracted, then of course their culturally-informed (rather than biblically-informed) views folded in the face of overwhelming pressure. I've yet to meet anyone who identified as an evangelical, who subsequently folded on this issue and said, "You know, I look at the word 'arsenakoitai' in Scripture and what it means and had my whole mind changed." The Scriptural twisting ultimately must come after the cultural pressure has been applied and yielded to.

And here is the point: if our morality is culturally conditioned, then it cannot hold up in a day and age when the cultural pressure is so acute, so painful, and so obviously intended to make evangelicals adopt the new morality. Our understanding of God, and our understanding of what it is he requires of us has to be thick, biblical, and rooted in God's self-revelation. Anything less will be blowing in the wind.

Postmodernism already seems passé--so 1970s, or at least 1990s. But if postmodernity has already passed us by then what ideological age is this? Post-postmodernity?

It's obvious we love to consider ourselves "post-" whatever came before us: we not only consider ourselves post-modern but post-colonial (in history and politics), post-traditional (as students, workers, and families), post-structural (in philosophy and literature), post-binary (in sexual ethics and identity), post-Christian (in religion and culture), and so on. To be "post" is to be current, with it, on the leading edge; so it seems almost inevitable that we--whoever "we" are--would want to be post-postmodern just as soon as morning-show hosts and suburban mega-church leaders embraced being postmodern.

But to be post-postmodern isn't easy. Being "post" anything is reactionary. To be post-colonial, for example, is still to be defined in colonial terms, just in the negative; the same holds for being post-traditional, post-structural, post-binary, post-Christian, and whatever else we claim to be post. While we may think we are clear about what we no longer are we continue to live in the long shadow of what was, not knowing how to define ourselves in any other terms. It's not surprising, therefore, that many people view postmodernity not as the dawn of a new positive era of some sort but as the twilight of modernity--"late modernity."

I'm not sure this is the most helpful way to think about the current age, however. While postmodernity may have been almost purely reactionary at the outset it is not just modernity's last rights. Something different is happening here, something new, something that may be so bizarre that it is surely unsustainable, but something nevertheless different and discontinuous with modernity. We are indeed post-modernity.

Consider our shifting concept of liberty. Broadly speaking, pre-modern liberty was a freedom to be virtuous and do good as you were able. In the medieval mind, to be human, male or female, royal or noble or common, and if common a tradesman or merchant or peasant, was really to be something--something that defined who you were and what was expected of you in life. To be free was to be free to play your part to the benefit of everyone around you, according to your station and opportunity.

The modern mind conceived of liberty more in terms of self-expression. You really are something but who you are may not correspond to your situation in life. To be free, then, was to be free from social constraints that hindered you from being truly and fully who you are. Personal happiness was no longer bound up in fulfilling some sort of socially defined role but in being authentically you.

This self-expressive concept of liberty eventually brought modernity to the gay rights movement. The argument was simple: God made some people gay and gay people need to be free to live authentic gay lives, whatever that entails. That argument was adapted in a fairly straightforward way from previous civil rights movements but was to the modernist concept of liberty more or less what phenomenology or existentialism was to modernist philosophy--it's twilight.

At the dawn of the present eclectic, disordered, and decentered age--the postmodern or perhaps post-postmodern era, depending on your view--liberty is no longer conceived in terms of being be free to be who we are but free to be whatever we will. Liberty is not only cut loose from virtue but even from nature. Already, the arguments of the pioneering gay-rights activists who claimed to be something in particular--gay or lesbian--and operated within the old binary strictures of male and female have been discarded. Male and female are not natural givens but just two socially constructed and privileged points on the wide spectrums gender identity and sexual desire. Not even human nature is a given--we are supposedly transient all the way down, and therefore ready to be transcended and free to be whatever we will.

This transient age in the history of ideas will be transient indeed; the damage we do to ourselves until it passes, however, may endure till Christ returns.