Doubting Thomas?

A Response to Gary Gutting's Critique of Aquinas

In his review of Denys Turner’s Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (“Doubting Thomas,” May 16, 2014), Gary Gutting calls the book an “impressive achievement.” He describes it as “stimulating,” “ingenious,” “excellent,” and “brilliant.” But he is much less enthusiastic about Aquinas’s thought than he is about Turner’s account of it.

Gutting criticizes four features of Aquinas’s thought. First, he claims Aquinas’s notion of human beings and the human soul makes it “extremely difficult to understand” how we can be raised from the dead, as Christian orthodoxy says that we shall be. Second, Aquinas’s view of God as Creator leaves us unable to appeal to “the free-will defense” when talking about the problem of evil. It also leaves us unable to think of ourselves as freely acting agents. Third, Aquinas’s claim that God is not a member of a kind “is a major obstacle to any real understanding of God” and leaves us “fundamentally unclear what our talk about God means,” since, if Aquinas is right, words like “wise,” “good,” or “loves” as applied to God cannot mean “what we mean by them.” Finally, Aquinas’s discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity leave it “with no meaning at all” and provide “no meaning that removes the apparent contradiction of the doctrine.” Let’s take these points in order.

According to Aquinas, people are essentially material things. Some philosophers have held that people are essentially incorporeal. Such thinkers have taken human beings to be souls or selves or minds or persons, able to survive death precisely because they are incorporeal by nature. You can find this view in the work of Plato and Descartes. Following Aristotle, however, Aquinas thinks that we are physical animals, albeit animals with the ability to gain knowledge, which Aquinas does not think of as something physical. Instead of supposing that my nonmaterial soul is the “real” me, Aquinas ends up saying that it is by virtue of my immaterial soul that I exist and operate as the physical thing that I am (i.e., a human being). On this account, my soul is only a part of me—the part that makes it possible for me to think, will, and choose. Aquinas thinks this part of me is able to survive my bodily perishing, and that it can be reunited with my body after I am resurrected. I stress the word “part” here because Aquinas is clear that my soul is not me because it is not, by itself, a human being. It is, he says, something “subsisting immaterially” and therefore not subject to physical decay. But it is always only a part of me—the whole of me being constituted by a union of soul and body—and this is why Aquinas rejoices in the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body, when soul and body will be rejoined.

Aquinas can make no sense of the idea that people are really, so to speak, ghosts connected to bodily bits. So, he does not believe in human survival after death as the continued existence of an essentially nonmaterial thing. He does not believe in human survival as deriving from “the immortality of the soul.” Rather, he thinks that if I am to survive my death intact, then I have to be there as something with both a soul and a body—with my soul informing my body. And Aquinas thinks that this is what Christians have traditionally meant when they claim that the dead shall be raised.

Now, Gutting says that Aquinas’s conclusion that the soul is immortal depends on a questionable assimilation of intellectual knowing with sense perception. Yet Aquinas frequently distinguishes between sensation and understanding. He takes sensations to be physical processes (changes in a body). And he does not claim to prove that the soul is immortal, only that it is not subject to physical corruption because it is immaterial. Gutting then tells us that, for Aquinas, the human soul depends on a body, which suggests that “it will not be able to exist without a body.” But Aquinas does not say that my soul depends on my body. Indeed, he explicitly denies this. He argues that the human soul is, in principle, able to exist without a human body since it is not subject to physical decay.

Gutting goes on to say that Aquinas has a problem even if we grant “that the soul is immortal.” For what, asks Gutting, really remains of us after “the strange process of resurrection”? He notes that philosophers working on the question “What constitutes personal identity for people?” have sometimes stressed physical continuity and sometimes psychological continuity. According to Gutting, Aquinas holds that our resurrection involves neither kind of continuity. But here Gutting’s account of Aquinas appears to be false. Aquinas thinks that there is indeed psychological continuity after our resurrection because he believes that our souls continue to have the knowledge we acquired before death, not to mention the knowledge Aquinas thinks God can impart to us after death. But Aquinas argues in several places that there also has to be material continuity between my living body now and my resurrected body.

Gutting suggests that “the Platonic view” (the idea that each of us is an essentially immaterial thing that can survive the death of our bodies) “makes the doctrine of immortality relatively easy to understand.” I suspect most contemporary philosophers would disagree with this conclusion, but I agree with Gutting that the Platonic view appears to be at odds with what human beings actually seem to be (i.e., parts of the spatio-temporal world). In any case, there is no “Christian doctrine of immortality.” There is the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which would be quite redundant on the Platonic view: Why worry about our bodies if we are essentially nonmaterial things? Why rejoice that Jesus left his grave to be with his disciples again as one whom they could recognize materially, as the New Testament claims that they did? On the Platonic view, his physical presence would be a matter of little or no importance.

This brings us to Gutting’s second point. He is right to say that Aquinas thought all creatures exist only insofar as God causes them to exist. Gutting takes this conclusion to conflict with belief in free will. According to Gutting’s understanding of free will, God sometimes stands back to let us “do our own thing,” and then our free actions are caused only by us and not by Him. The assumption here, of course, is that our free actions cannot derive both from us and from God.

It is true that some who believe in free will say that if God were the cause of my free actions, then I would never really act freely, and Gutting seems to agree with them. But Aquinas disagrees. This is because he thinks, on philosophical and biblical grounds, that absolutely everything that is not divine—everything but God himself—has to receive its existence from God for as long as it exists. But Aquinas does not say, as Gutting claims he does, that “God is the total and direct cause of my free action.” Aquinas does not deny that “an action directly and entirely caused by another agent is by definition not my action.” On the contrary, Aquinas says that the things God creates, which could not continue to exist without him, have genuine causal powers. He clearly rejects the view that I can be free if something in the world acts on me from outside so as to have its way with me. But he does not think of God as something in the world acting on me from outside; he thinks of God as creating me to be the freely acting creature that I am. For Aquinas, God’s creating something does not consist in his tinkering or interfering with it somehow. Aquinas explicitly denies that “God is creating x” means that God is bringing about a change in x. God creates by sustaining the things he creates, not by forcing them. He makes it possible for them to exist in the first place—and to continue to exist. For Aquinas, the best answer to the question “What is God?” is “He who is,” meaning that it is God’s very nature to exist, while everything else receives its existence from God.

Aquinas is not alone in thinking along these lines. What he says squares with much of what we find in the Bible, as well as in patristic literature. It also squares with Catholic conciliar texts and with the writings of classical Protestant reformers such as Calvin and the compilers of the Westminster Confession, which says that “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” Is a text like this just talking nonsense, as Gutting suggests? I am not at all sure that it is. Anyway, I do not see that Gutting has shown that it is.

On to Gutting’s third point. According to Gutting, when we say that God is x, y, or z, we cannot mean that God is x, y, or z in the same sense that we are. Yet Aquinas does not want to say that God is x, y, or z in the same sense that we are. And, along with many theologians before and after his time, Aquinas would think it odd that anyone should want to say this. Because Aquinas takes God to be the Creator of all things, he thinks it obvious that God has to be radically different from us.

Still, Aquinas thinks we have reason to say things like “There is knowledge in God,” “There is goodness in God,” and “There is love in God.” Why? Because, Aquinas argues, God could not give what God does not have. The perfections to be found in certain creatures, therefore, can be taken to reflect what God is as their Creator. This is what Aquinas has in mind when he says that, when we talk about God and creatures, we can use certain words or “names” analogically. Gutting seems to think that Aquinas is thinking here in terms of metaphor or simile, which he most definitely is not. As an instance of analogy, Gutting cites “My love is a rose.” Aquinas, though, would take “My love is a rose” to be figurative talk, unlike “God is good” or “God is wise,” which Aquinas takes to be literally true. (See his arguments in Summa Theologiae, 1a, 13.)

Gutting is right to say that, for Aquinas, our talk about God always fails to grasp what God really is. Aquinas takes the words we use to talk about God as being like second-hand clothes that do not quite fit the person who inherits them. But this does not make the clothes worthless. According to Gutting, what Aquinas says about God entails that all our talk about God is fundamentally unclear. This might be true if the statements “God is x” and “I am x” had to be understood as using x in exactly the same way or not at all. But Aquinas takes pains to explain why talk of God and creatures cannot be construed “univocally,” and he gives arguments for saying that, for example, “good” can be literally predicated both of God and of a human being, though in different ways. Hence his appeal to analogical predication. In his review of Turner’s book, Gutting does not pay sufficient attention to what Aquinas says about this. For Aquinas, our words for describing God always have to “signify imperfectly” because God is the Creator and not an item in the world or the biggest thing around.

And so to Gutting’s last criticism. Gutting quotes Turner as saying that, for Aquinas, the Trinity is “utterly unknowable.” Gutting finds this conclusion unsatisfactory, a surrender to unreason. Yet Turner is surely right that we can hardly expect to understand what the Trinity is in the same way we might understand, say, what three cats in a basket are. Gutting claims that Aquinas fails to show that the doctrine of the Trinity is even intelligible, much less true, and hides behind a mystical description of God as “utterly unknowable.” Yet, in spite of what Aquinas says about what we do not—and cannot—know about God, he also has plenty to say, with various qualifications and distinctions, about what we can truthfully and meaningfully assert concerning God. And Aquinas’s writings on the Trinity are frequently concerned to deny that there are logical objections to belief in God as somehow three in one.

Aquinas does not believe that there are demonstrative arguments for the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity, which he takes to be an “article of faith.” But he is aware of a series of possible objections to the doctrine that challenge its logical consistency, and he deals with them at length in texts like Summa Theologiae 1a, 27–43. In such texts, he does not use words that migrate “off the semantic map,” as Gutting puts it. Aquinas argues that, though we cannot comprehend what the Trinity is (as we can comprehend, to some extent, what various things in the world are), we can talk sense about the Trinity using words that are already available to us. Indeed, that is Aquinas’s line when it comes to the divine nature in general.

How successful is he in defending this line? That is a different question. A serious answer to it would depend on a careful reading of his many writings.

Published in the August 15, 2014 issue: 

Brian Davies is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University. His books include Thomas Aquinas’s ‘Summa Theologiae’: A Guide and Commentary (2014) and Thomas Aquinas’s ‘Summa Contra Gentiles’: A Guide and Com-
mentary
(2016), both published by Oxford University Press.

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