‘Cartesian Asceticism’

In Joseph Owens’ essay in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, the author emphasizes that Aquinas (with Aristotle) roots human knowledge in objects in the world impinging on our senses.  With a nice turn of phrase, Owens marks how this is rather different from the subjectivism that one finds in Descartes and, generally, in ‘postmodern’ sensibilities:

[T]he postmodern approach is bound by its own historical antecedents in a way that stretches as far back as Descartes. It cannot take seriously the approach from things in themselves.  It is incapable of understanding how things in themselves may be epistemologically prior to thoughts and words.  Still conditioned by the Cartesian asceticism of turning one’s back upon the immaturity of sense cognition and taking one’s ideas as the starting points for philosophical thinking, it finds incomprehensible the stand that the thing signified can be epistemologically prior to the sign (p. 56).

In Bavinck’s narrative of this (in RD vol. 1), one finds that our true sense perception of the world serving as the foundation of human knowledge is a staple in the history of catholic Christian theology and philosophical thinking.  Intriguingly, on this reading, infatuation with idealism or linguistic constructivism in recent Christian thinkers enamored of (so-called) postmodern thought represents a spurning of the catholic (small ‘c’) resources and trajectory.

Any thoughts on any of this?


“His Glance Is Carried from Eternity”: Aquinas on Divine Foreknowledge

The open theism debates may have cooled down a while back, but inquiring about divine foreknowledge still leads us into some weighty issues in the field of theology proper, issues of the perennially significant sort when it comes to the church’s understanding of God and his relationship to the world and its human inhabitants.  In light of this, I thought it might be worth unpacking and discussing Aquinas’ article in the Summa which asks “whether the knowledge of God is of future contingent things” (Ia.14.13).

Under this article there are three potential objections against the claim that God’s  knowledge  includes future contingent things.  Objection one judges that, since 1) the  knowledge of God is  the cause of all things known (see Ia.14.8) and 2) the knowledge of  God is necessary with  respect to things known, the necessary cause (God’s knowledge) must yield a necessary  effect (the thing known), rendering future things not contingent but necessary.  Objection two  declares this proposition to be true: “If God knew that this thing will be, it will be.”  However,  the antecedent here is eternal and signified as past  and, therefore, necessary, meaning that its  consequent (the being of a thing known) also is necessary.  Objection three reasons from the  dynamics of human knowledge to the  dynamics of divine knowledge: “even what we  ourselves  know must necessarily be…and, of course, the knowledge of God is much more  certain than  ours.”  In short, if something is known, it must necessarily be.  The conclusion,  then, is that  God knows no future contingent thing.  This has the feel of an analytic statement:  divine  knowledge by definition cannot have as its object any future contingent thing.  It’s  interesting  to note that the objections seem generally to affirm God’s knowledge of future things but  question their contingency, whereas the open theists seem generally to affirm the  contingency  of future things but question God’s knowledge of these.

What has Aquinas to say in response?  He contradicts the objections by quoting Psalm 32:15 as testimony to God’s knowledge of all the works of human beings.  But, inasmuch as our works are subject to the freedom of our will, they are contingent.  Thus, with the help of a fairly modest inference, Aquinas is able to draw from Old Testament Scripture to maintain that God does indeed have knowledge of future contingent things.  From here Aquinas answers that God’s knowledge includes things actual and possible and, since some of these are future and contingent to us, God enjoys knowledge of future contingent things.

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The Christ’s Faith: A Dogmatic Proposal

The question regarding a subjective or objective rendering of pistis Christou has been plagued by an overemphasis on the ability of grammar and linguistics to answer theological questions. Deep exegesis is needed, to be sure, but no number of studies on how Paul tends to use genitive constructions can give us insight into his other usages – that simply is not how human beings use language. The broader theological questions have tended to be ignored, but fortunately, a theologian has taken up the question, and in this post I will outline his argument.

R. Michael Allen, in his volume The Christ’s Faith: A Dogmatic Account (T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology, 2009) argues for a subjective reading of pistis Christou. Allen focuses his attention on the necessary Christological implications of this kind of reading, arguing for important theological import into Reformed theology specifically. To do so, Allen navigates a critique of Aquinas’ understanding of Jesus’ beatific knowledge (thereby excluding faith for the incarnate One), works alongside Barth and develops his constructive proposal within the broad contours of Reformed theology. Allen invokes Morna Hooker to highlight the general concerns with a subjective reading:

(1) ‘a concern lest this translation undermines the basic Reformation emphasis on faith’; (2) ‘the assumption that faith is an appropriate action for the believer, but is inappropriate for Christ himself’; (3) ‘dislike of the principle of imitatio Christi‘ (25). Continue reading

Thomas Aquinas – Theologian of the Christian Life

When Kyle and I began working together on a theology of the Christian life project, Nicholas Healy’s edition to Ashgate’s Great Theologians series shot to the top of my list: Thomas Aquinas: Theologian of the Christian Life (2003; many thanks to Ashgate for a review copy).  I was not disappointed.

healythomas-aquinasHealy’s Thomas Aquinas is a concise and highly accessible introduction to Thomas’ theology, surveying his historical context and development, reception history, and the major doctrines of the Christian faith in Thomas’ Summa Theologiae (henceforth ST). Though a good introduction, likely its most noteworthy contribution is the proposal for a particular kind of reading of ST that makes transparent the evangelical, pastoral and theocentric character of Thomas’ premodern theology. Healy wants to recover a reading of Thomas in which his theological method, his hermeneutics and metaphysics, his conception of the Christian doctrine and practice and pedagogy, as well as the material claims of his theology, are seen to be guided by the principles and norms that ‘reflect the gospel accounts of Jesus Christ’ (p. 23).

The book unfolds in six chapters beginning with an historical overview of Thomas’ life and career followed by subsequent chapters addressing Thomas’ Dominicanism (specifically its Christocentric orientation and emphasize on obedience to Christ), doctrine of God, Christology, and conception of the Christian life in light of its ground in the Trinity and in the work of Jesus Christ.

The early material related to Thomas’ identity as a Dominican is actually quite significant for grasping Healy’s interpretative proposals. To be a Dominican was to view the Christian life as a ‘radical’ life, Continue reading

Aquinas, Preaching, and the Christian Life

I will be posting next week a review of Nicholas Healy’s introduction to Thomas Aquinas’ theology, Thomas Aquinas: Theologian of the Christian life, but I wanted to whet your appetite with a quote before the end of the week.

One of the aims of Healy’s book is to recover a reading of Thomas in which his theological method, his hermeneutics and metaphysics, his conception of the Christian doctrine and practice and pedagogy, as well as the material claims of his theology, are seen to be guided by the principles and norms that ‘reflect the gospel accounts of Jesus Christ’ (p. 23). Healy contends throughout that Thomas’ theology should not be read as philosophical, aquinasapologetic or systematic work, but instead as a work of scriptural exegesis intended – above all – to serve the preaching of the Gospel. And toward these ends, Thomas must then be read as a theologian first and foremost of the Christian life:

Thomas’s is an anti-systematic system, so to speak, in that its principles systematically undermine any system that does not push the reader back to Scripture and to the concreteness of a life dedicated to following Christ. His theology is best approached from his concern with the Christian life. It is not an attempt to develop an apologetics or a system that confronts and conquers all other systems. It is not concerned with mapping out the complete set of doctrines, though its covers all the doctrines that Thomas thought is necessary to discuss. It is least of all concnered to construct a perennial metaphysics to counter all other worldviews. Theology, as Thomas understands and practices it, attempts to clarify what has been revealed to divine wisdom through the incarnate Word and the operation of the Holy Spirit. Theological inquiry’s main function is to serve the preaching of the Gospel. And the preaching of the Gospel serves the Christian life, which is distinct from other ways of life, since it is an attempt to follow Jesus Christ obediently (p. 21).