Letters | But Was Aquinas Right?

Readers Write

In “Doubting Thomas?” (August 15) Brian Davies challenges my review of Denys Turner’s new book Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait, often on the grounds that I am mistaken in my “account of Aquinas.” For me to argue with Davies about what Aquinas meant would be like a Little Leaguer trying to hit against a World Series MVP pitcher. The opening paragraph of my review made it clear that I am not a historian of medieval philosophy and so would have nothing to say about what Aquinas thought. Instead, I wrote, I would only discuss the views that Turner (another MVP whose fastball I could never handle) attributes to Aquinas. Davies’s criticisms of the “account of Aquinas” I discussed should be directed to Turner. Unfortunately, he continually assumes that Turner’s interpretations are mine. At one point he even attributes to me a crucial phrase (about Aquinas on the Trinity) that I quoted directly from Turner.

Sometimes, however, Davies responds to my criticism of a position he thinks Aquinas really does hold. My criticisms typically claim that Aquinas’s position—as Turner presents it—has unacceptable consequences. For example, I say that his claim that all talk of God is analogous implies that assertions such as “God is good” have no clear meaning; and that his claim that the divine persons of the Trinity are in fact relations implies a contradiction (since a person cannot be a relation). To such criticisms Davies’s typical response is that Aquinas would deny that the consequences I criticize follow from his position. I’m sure Davies is right about that, but the question is not about what Aquinas says follows from his position but about what actually does follow from it.

For example, Aquinas holds that God creates everything, including our free choices. Davies says I wrongly claim that a consequence of Aquinas’s view is that “God is the total and direct cause of my free action” (though here I am just following Turner). Davies rightly points out that for Aquinas “God creates X” is not a matter of God’s “bringing about a change in X.” Instead, “God creates by sustaining the things he creates, not by forcing them. He makes it possible for them to exist...and to continue to exist.” This, however, misleadingly suggests that God’s creation produces only the possibility of my making free choices. In fact, for Aquinas, God creates the very choices that are said to be free.

Davies admits this when he cites a text from the Westminster Confession, which he says “squares with” Aquinas’s view. According to this text, “God from all eternity, did...freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” But how can a choice that God unchangeably ordained from all eternity be a choice that I have freely made? Aquinas’s (and Davies’s) answer is that God has created my choice precisely as my free choice. But how can a choice that God has entirely created (ex nihilo) be my free choice? We can write the words, but what do they mean? Davies doesn’t explain how to make sense of Aquinas’s view, concluding only that he’s “not at all sure that it is nonsense” and that I haven’t shown that it is.

I agree that Aquinas is a profound thinker who has many resources for responding to objections. We should, as Davies suggests, continue our “careful reading of his many writings.” But neither Davies’s comments on my review (nor Turner’s book) suggest plausible responses to the questions I’ve raised.

Gary Gutting

Notre Dame, Ind.

Published in the September 12, 2014 issue: 
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