Thursday, January 20, 2005

An evaluation of Thomas Aquinas

Here is a recent essay that I wrote on Thomas Aquinas. Essentially the subject is what were Aquinas' goals in writing and the presuppositions that guide his thinking and how did those things effect his theology of grace. I think this is appropriate to post here because many people often consider Aquinas as a rationalist thinker. While he is rational, he maintains that faith must precede reason.

All the page number references are from Aquinas On Nature And Grace. An edited version of Aquinas' Summa Theologica by A.M. Fairweather. If anyone wants the article of the Summa that is referenced in any place then I will be glad to look it up.

One assumption made by the classical theologians is that our faith is to be first, primary to reason. To begin theological inquiry without first presupposing the articles of faith is a mistake. Our investigation, according to Anselm is not to “arrive at faith through reason, but in order that (we) may take delight in the understanding and contemplation of the things which we believe." Aquinas begins by saying this in a more philosophical way. It is necessary that some things which transcend human reason be made know by divine revelation, because this gives direction to the man is in exercise of using his reason. A man reasoning about God with revelation before him will likely make errors regarding the true nature of God. Even those few who would arrive at proper conclusions by reason alone, would be drowned out by the many voices of those who are wrong, and their correct doctrine would mixed and lost with those which are wrong (36). These things which transcend reason are to believed by faith. Aquinas then goes on to say that there are two distinct divisions of theology: one based on scripture and one based on philosophy. Aquinas says that the type of theology that is based on Scripture should not be used to prove anything about Scripture itself, for this is impossible. But, if one does the articles of faith as contained in Holy Scripture, then the philosopher can argue from these articles to speak of things outside of them. If a critic of Scripture is willing to concede nothing at all, then there is no way to prove the articles of faith by argument, except to disprove those grounds which he brings up against the faith (45). It is proper for reason to clarify those points of doctrine which are not clear in Scripture, but that does not allow that reason should be in conflict with these (46). Sacred doctrine uses these reasonable philosophical arguments as supporting and probable, but it uses the canonical Scripture as the proper authority (46). Aquinas includes an interesting statement here considering the authority that the church has given to men like Aquinas. Sacred doctrine “uses other teachers of the Church as authorities from which one may indeed argue with propriety, yet only with probability” (46). The Catholic Church has often given as much weight to the words of Thomas Aquinas as to Holy Scripture. This is something that Aquinas himself would have seen as improper. These are the points which resulted in a splitting of the church during the Reformation. The modern church could learn something here as they solidify their theology to the point that they consider it nearly divine as well.
In what way grace presupposes nature is a more difficult task to understand. Human nature for Aquinas is the victim and the cause of original sin. However, Aquinas does not view original sin as completely destructive of the original good that was in man. Good is only diminished in man in an amount proportionate to his sin (128). It seems that Aquinas believes that man is still mostly good, but has a sickness in sin. This part that is bad is where grace moves in. Aquinas asserts, “The will of a man…is moved by good which already exists in things, but presupposes it, partially or wholly” (157). This view of man’s goodness comes forth again when Aquinas speaks of co-operative grace. In this section, Aquinas asserts that there is something in man that wants to and is able to work with God towards the salvation of a man’s soul (165).
All of this talk of the goodness of the man’s soul does not change the source of that goodness. Grace presupposes nature in the sense that God is the gracious source of any good that is in man. God has given to creation a certain kind of good. But, rational creatures have been risen up to partake in the divine good. This act is only by grace and is above the natural good. Aquinas explains, “To say that a man has the grace of God, therefore, is to say that there is something supernatural in him, which God bestows” (158).
Finally, how does perfection presuppose what is to be perfected. Aquinas understands that man does not have the ability to achieve eternal life in him. Eternal life and grace are of God and for man to achieve these would make him like God. Will God grant the effects of predestination to anyone based on merit (109)? Some have said predestination is dependent upon the works of some previous life. Others say that God predestined based on the works of this life. Still others claim that predestination is based on God’s foreknowledge of the works of those who would be predestined (109-110). Instead, Aquinas answers that the whole good which is in man to deserve any honor is contained in his predestination. Grace moves upon a man according to predestination and a whole series of good works is then given to his nature. These good works are then worthy of some merit, but these good works are dependant upon first being predestined. In this way, the perfect, God, presupposes what is to be perfected, man.
Aquinas seems to cause a difficulty with this formation of grace and predestination. On one hand, he says that nothing in a man is in any man worthy of being predestined and receiving grace. On the other hand, he says that a good nature is in all creatures and man as well. Here I must prefer the opinion that man is completely bankrupt and able to do no good except by grace. While some who follow Aquinas theology would insist that he maintains this doctrine in his understanding of grace presupposing nature, it seems to me that there is still conflict that he did not resolve.

After reading this work again I have decided that it wasn't least not at the end. Maybe comments here can finish it up!!!

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