Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Aquinas, “existence”, and the failure to observe the Creator-creature distinction

Van Til, in his Introduction to Warfield's “Inspiration and Authority of the Bible”, notes that Roman Catholicism does not “start with the Creator-creature distinction as basic to all their interpretation of doctrine. They started with the idea of being as such and introduced the distinction of Creator and creature as a secondary something” (p. 49).

Protestants, from the earliest days of the Reformation, understood a “categorical distinction” between God and all of the rest of creation: the “Creator-creature distinction”. On the other hand, while God is Creator within the Roman Catholic system, God is not “above and beyond”, in a totally other category. He shares a trait, and that trait is “existence”.

In other words, the first category in Roman Catholicism is to start with “existence”: God has “existence”, and he passes this characteristic along to every other created thing. Down below and in subsequent entries I’ll begin to show how that cashes out in the Roman Catholic understanding of the universe.

This is not something that “damns them all to hell”. But this kind of difference at the starting point does lead to the kind of confusion in which Roman dogmas and Protestant doctrines cannot be reconciled after 500 years of differences.

There is also a caution that goes along with all of this. Aquinas intermingles theology and philosophy. He relies heavily on philosophical themes to understand theology. In theory, this is and should be helpful. Peter Escalante has observed:

What philosophy … does not do, [or rather, what it should not do] is provide extra data for the proper object of theology, which is God and His acts. It can clarify understanding of those things, it can aid in how we speak of them, and it can clarify them from the side of the creature who stands in relation to God and His acts. But it does not provide extra positive data. But ancient Mediterranean philosophy in itself wasn’t trying to. The first objection to Hebrew/Hellenic dichotomies is that they are almost always irresponsible generalizations or even just projections. They are rarely justified with any attempt at serious historical demonstration. The second is that what is true is true, and though revealed religion is the supreme truth, it doesn’t cancel other truths which arise when the mind knows God’s creation. And the Greeks especially excelled at that kind of knowledge.

But in practice, we can and do see how things diverged “down the road”. We see how understanding “first things”, “first principles”, leads to totally different and mutually-exclusive systems of thought (as are Roman Catholicism and Reformation theology).

Yes the Greeks excelled at understanding “true” things about the world around them. But that doesn’t mean that they got everything right. If nothing else, their powers of observation lacked microscopes and telescopes, among other things. At some point their observations about “truths” of ”God’s creation” broke down – whereas we can see and measure the protons, neutrons, electrons, as well as the far distant galaxies and quasars, and we can make educated guesses about quarks and dark matter, the Greeks had none of that.

Now, sometimes, in the early church especially, Greek ideas do “provide extra data” that works its way into “the proper object of theology” – I’ve cited T.F. Torrance and how the Greek notion of “grace”, as found in the writings of some of the “Apostolic Fathers”, differed from the way “grace” was used in the New Testament, for example.

But more importantly, the ancient Greeks, for all their disciplined thinking, did not have the Scriptures – they did not have God’s own revelation of himself and his creation to help them understand and order things.

Therefore, at some point for the Greeks, who seemed to know “truths which arise when the mind knows God’s creation”, what they knew necessarily frayed at the edges, at points at which we know many, many things with a certainty that the Greeks couldn’t possibly even imagine, much less “know”.

Aquinas was renowned for his “synthesis” of Greek philosophies and theology. Roman Catholicism for centuries held Aquinas’s work as the pinnacle of all thought about creation. But that is one of the things that has led to all kinds of trouble, I think.

With that having been said, and following on my blog posts about “chain-of-being” theology, I’d like to begin to talk about perhaps what is the foundational line of thinking in Aquinas, “existence”, as it’s presented in “The Thought of Thomas Aquinas” by Brian Davies, O.P., Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, ©1992), on the topic of “Existence”:

Though Aquinas distinguishes at least five ways of demonstrating God’s existence, however, in arguing for the truth of theism he places special emphasis on one argument, which I shall call ‘The Existence Argument’. It appears again and again in his writings, and it is often presupposed in contexts where it is not given explicitly…. But it is particularly concisely stated in Summa theologiae 1a 65. 1.

Whenever different things share something in common, there must be some cause of this sharing; precisely as different, they themselves do not account for it. Thus it is that whenever some one element is found in different things, these receive it from one cause, just as different hot bodies get their heat from one fire. Existence, however, is shared by all things, however much they differ. There must therefore be a single source of existence from which whatever exists in any manner whatsoever, whether invisible or spiritual or visible and material, obtains its existence (citing ST 1a 65. 1.).

In various places, Aquinas distinguishes different senses in which something can be said to be. Here, though, his meaning is that the fact of there being actual subjects, real objects or individuals, ultimately means that something exists independently of any cause outside of itself, something accounts for the existence of everything else.

Of course, this “something” is God. This much does not seem to be controversial. However, note God’s role as “one element” “found in different things”. “Existence”, according to Aquinas, is “shared by all things”. And God is the “single source of existence”.

Precisely how is God the source of “existence”? Davies continues:

To begin with, for example, we can note that creation by God (the act of creating) is, for Aquinas, the making of something from nothing. When things come to be in the world they always do so against a background where things already exist. They come to be from something, as, for example, I came to be from the sperm and egg which turned into me when I was conceived. According to Aquinas, however, with God’s act of creating we have something different. We have the coming to be of things with no background of existing things, a coming to be which is not from anything. The only thing presupposed to creation is God. In creation, what is not (period) comes to be (period).

We must consider not only the emanation of a particular being from a particular agent, but also the emanation of all being from the universal cause, which is God; and this emanation we designate by the name of creation. Now what proceeds by particular emanation is not presupposed to that emanation; as when a man is generated, he was not before, but man is made from not-man and white from not-white. Hence if the emanation of the whole universal being from the first principle be considered, it is impossible that any being should be presupposed before this emanation. For nothing is the same as no being. Therefore, as the generation of a man is from the not being which is not-man, so creation, which is the emanation of all being, is from the not-being which is nothing (citing ST 1a. 45. 1., bold emphasis is JB’s, italic in original).

Hence, not surprisingly, Aquinas can add (1) that a distinction must be drawn between creating and changing, and (2) that only God can create. I can create a picture by moving bits of paint around and shaping it on a canvas, i.e. by bringing something into existence, is not acting on anything so as to modify things somehow. He is effecting no alteration on what already exists before he creates. He makes things to be ex nihilo (from nothing), and only he can do this. Or as Aquinas himself puts it (drawing on the Existence argument):

Creation is the proper activity of God alone. Effects which are more universal need to be taken to more universal and original causes. Among all effects the most universal is existence itself, which should accordingly be the proper effect of the first and most universal cause, which is God … Not to produce existence absolutely, not merely this thing or that sort of thing, belongs to the meaning of creation. Manifestly creation is the proper action of God himself (citing ST 1a. 45. 5).

This means that all things depend on God for their continued existence. In saying that God is the Creator of something, God just got it going at some time past. He means that God sustains it in being. In this sense his doctrine of creation is also a doctrine of continual preservation (Davies pgs 34-35).

In such a way, God is not so much seen in the light of a “Creator/creature distinction”, but as sort of a giant cosmic battery in the center of it all. He is both “is existence” in himself, and he “creates existence” for the universe. For God, in the thought of Aquinas, “the universe is in … procession from, and return to, the Absolute, allotting to each grade of reality its place in the hierarchy of being—and to man in particular a unique place of privilege” (Fran O’Rourke, “Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas”, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, ©2005 – which is a reprint of the same title, © 1992 by Leiden, NE: E.J. Brill, from the Preface, pg xvii).

That’s a theme I’ll develop further, Lord willing. By contrast, as Van Til comments upon “the defective nature of their concept of revelation”:

It is only if the Creator-creature distinction is taken seriously that the human mind can be seen as inherently revelational of God. But Romanism does not take the creation doctrine seriously. It detracts from this doctrine by its idea of the freedom of man. This idea of freedom amounts to a measure of independence over against God. And to the extent that man is independent of God, he is no longer revelatory of God. Moreover, if man is made to some extent independent of God, to that extent God is made dependent upon man. Or rather, to that extent both God and man are dependent upon one another and upon the Universe. If man is partly independent of God, his ultimate reference point is no longer exclusively found in God ….

It is only in Reformed theology … that the doctrine of revelation is held in all the depth and breadth of its significance. This is done because the doctrine of God, as quoted from the Confession and Catechism is held uncompromisingly. Holding this doctrine without qualification implies taking the creation doctrine seriously. And taking the creation doctrine seriously involves thinking of man in his whole constitutional make-up as himself revelational of God. Being himself exhaustively revelational of God he is in all his activities dependent upon God. The constitution of his mind therefore interposes no obstruction to any form of revelation that might come to it. Being itself revelational, the mind of man is made for the receptive of revelation (Van Til, “An Introduction to Systematic Theology”, Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, © 1974, pgs 160, 162).

This hearkens back to the apologetic practiced by the Called to Communion gang, specifically Michael Liccione. There, the search is on for “a principled distinction between divine revelation and human theological opinion, so that by deploying it, he at least has an argument that his particular interpretations are reliable expressions of divine revelation, not just opinions.”

But in reality, what Van Til is saying, is that, the question is not whether any one person “enjoys the gift of infallibility”. What Van Til is saying is that, in properly and humbly understanding that God is God and man is something completely different (though reflective of God, in the “image” of God), that God himself has the capability to reveal himself in such a way that each individual Christian understands.

On the other hand, within the metaphysical model espoused by Aquinas, God and man are all “sort of in this thing together”, and “together with ‘The Infallible Church’, God will help us all figure things out”.

Van Til’s model leads to humility, Aquinas’s model leads to hubris.


  1. Actually, it sounds more like Aquinas' model leads to the Great Chain of Being and an understanding of Man being basically made in the image of God, whereas Van Til leads to alienation and the model of Man and Creation as a depraved redheaded stepchild who was never really loved.

    But mostly, I think the problem is that Van Til is acting like he's never read anything of Aquinas on the various kinds of revelation. Aquinas is certainly not unconscious of the way God is way way way different from humans in both kind and degree, and of how much "condescension" (in the old sense) it took for the Son to take on flesh and become Man.

    But Aquinas does start from the very old idea that in Eden, humans were greater than they are now but not as great as, say, a saved human in a resurrection body. So there's a lot more room for the original humans to be made in God's image and likeness, and for humans to fall but not to be totally worthless even as fallen, unbaptized beings. (And here you can insert Shakespeare's speech about what a piece of work is man, or Tolkien's poem about humans retaining the power of subcreation even after the Fall.)

    God is not totally alienated from His Creation, because He made us in His image and likeness, and because He then became one of us. The distinction between Creator and Creation is lessened not because of us, but because God wishes it to be bridged by Him. Using the stuff that He gave us is not presumption; rather, it is a waste if we don't use the bridge He died and rose to give us. He's the one Who named us His children and co-heirs, so any complaints about excessive fraternization between Creation and Creator should go to Him.

    If you really want to play the game, of course, you'd want to haul in the Orthodox folks' models....

    1. I think you display almost total ignorance here of what I've said and also what Van Til said. The Great Chain of Being existed far earlier than Aquinas did -- and I've discussed his notion of Image of God (and its deficiencies) in a blog post this morning.

      Now, if you want me to be kinder to you, you'll apologize for your "depraved redheaded stepchild" remark, because it's totally based on ignorance and prejudice of what both Calvin and Van Til had to say.

      It is ridiculous for you to think that Van Til did not read Aquinas. Nobody said that Aquinas was "unconscious" of the way that God is different. In fact, in my opening paragraph, Van Til says that this "distinction" existed in Aquinas, but just not where it needed to be.

      Even within the Incarnate Christ, however, you ought doctrinally to recognize that this distinction exists "without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union,"

      So "if you really want to play the game", you, of course, will wise up and speak honestly about things, before you go mouthing off as you have done here.

  2. Now, see, you can go a lot lot further than Aquinas! From the upcoming abstracts for the Oxford patristics conference in September:

    St Gregory the Theologian’s Bold Dictum
    Gabrielle Thomas

    The writings of St Gregory the Theologian have been prized for centuries on many accounts, including his theological anthropology. The image of God is a theme running through Gregory’s Oration on Baptism in which Gregory, as the image of God conducts a conversation with the devil, during which he suggests that the devil should ‘worship’ him and other baptised believers. The tradition of the devil’s ‘worship’ of the image of God is evident in the pseudepigraphal Life of Adam and Eve, which when considered together with the Oration on Baptism, sheds light on Gregory’s interpretation of the implications of a human being created as the image of God.

  3. I am hard pressed to see how the citations from Aquinas here suggest that he in any way failed to properly recognize the Creator-creature distinction.

    You seem to be complaining that, in Roman Catholic theology/philosophy, God is regarded as sharing the trait of "existence" with creatures rather than being "in a totally other category." I don't know what to make of this complaint. Are you suggesting that God is somehow beyond being, like Plotinus's One? Or, less radically, that existence is predicated of God and of creatures not univocally but rather analogically? - in which case, you are ironically sounding like a Thomist!

    Perhaps you merely mean to emphasize that God exists in a different way than his creatures do - and this is something with which Aquinas would abundantly agree. He affirms that God is self-existent; that he exists necessarily; that he is the independent First Cause upon whom all other beings depend for their exist; his essence is identical to his existence; even abstract ideas do not exist dependently of the divine mind; and so on. With most or all of these I would hope an orthodox Protestant would be in hearty agreement!

    Thus your comment that on Aquinas's view, "God and man are all 'sort of in this thing together'" is just a display of unscholarly sectarian silliness.

    1. I didn't see how Aquinas "failed to properly recognize the Creator-creature distinction". It is recognized. It is, however, as I said in my first paragraph, "a secondary something". I am not at all talking about the particular ways that God is different. I merely stated that the emphasis on this distinction -- as a secondary, not a primary thing -- and that lack of care about this distinction "leads to the kind of confusion in which Roman dogmas and Protestant doctrines cannot be reconciled after 500 years of differences."

      By the way, I can't imagine a Biblical statement in which God says "my essence is identical to my existence". God says all kinds of things about himself in Scripture, but that is not one of them.

      FYI, in a blog post this morning, I've fleshed out how this "chain of being" philosophy has played itself out doctrinally in Aquinas.