JMC : The Knowableness of God / by Matthew Schumacher, CSC


Before we take up the problem directly, we shall say a few words on the principal works of St. Thomas in which he treats this question, and also point out briefly the position of this subject in his writings, as well as the influence that affected his view and presentation. The works that we shall outline are: Summa Theologica, Summa Contra Gentes, Commentary on the Lombard, Quaestiones Disputatae, Compendium Theologiae.

"The Summa Theologiae is the first system of Theology scientifically carried out. The theological and speculative works of his predecessors and elder contemporaries as well as his own numerous works of many sorts are but a great and massive preparation for this work."{1} The development of theological science from the days of Anselm to those of Aquinas here finds comprehensive and systematic expression. We find the purpose of the work stated in its prologue: "Our intention in this work is to present the teaching of the Christian Religion in a way suited for the instruction of beginners." He, therefore, proposes to avoid questions and distinctions that confuse the beginner, and to give a connected view of the whole field of sacred knowledge. There are three parts to the work; the first treats of God in Himself, the second of man in his relation to God, the third of Christ as the way that leads to God. The parts are made up of questions; each question is divided into a number of articles, and each article opens with a few objections against the special point to be discussed; then there is a positive statement of doctrine with accompanying arguments; and finally, the previously proposed objections are answered. The first part is the one that interests us especially and only that portion which tells us what the human reason can know of God. This portion is well set forth in the following diagram taken from Werner.{2}


This diagram comprises questions 2-26 of the Summa Theologica. It is completed for our purpose by adding questions 44-49, relating specifically to the First Cause of all things, duration and distinction of created things, evil and its cause. The Summa Contra Gentes is an Apology for the Christian Religion. The title given it by St. Thomas himself shows this: Summa de Veritate Fidei Catholicae. It was written at the request of St. Raymond of Pennafort, who wished to have a systematic presentation of the doctrine of the Church as a defence against the Moors in Spain. The work is divided into four books and each book is made up of chapters. The first three deal with doctrine in the light of reason, the fourth is concerned with the data of revelation as beyond reason. The question of God is paramount in these pages: God in Him self His essence and attributes, are treated of in the first book, God as the efficient and final cause of all things make up the second and third, as named.

"It is the first work in which he (Aquinas) presented his system as a coherent whole,"{3} though not entirely complete, for the final expression of his thought is found in the Summa Theologica. These two works have much in common, yet differ in scope and method. The former is practically philosophical throughout,{4} the latter is principally theological, though in each there are philosophical and theological discussions according to the topic treated. In method, the former is almost entirely positive in in its treatment, at least objections are seldom formally presented and answered, in the latter each article begins with a number of objections; again, in the former there are a number of arguments advanced to support each question, in the latter there is usually but one. This is due to the fact, no doubt, that St. Thomas wished to make the Summa Theologica as clear and as easy as possible, since, in his own words, he wrote it for beginners, In the Summa Contra Gentes, "It is much more a question of basis for the points raised than a development of them, hence the desire to vindicate in severe brief presentation the right value and necessarily concise acknowledgment of the truth contained in the question by means of as large a number of reasons as possible."{5} We shall shortly recur to the position of God in these works. In his Commentary on the Lombard, St. Thomas followed the division of the work of the author. There are four books containing in a systematic form the theology of the Church -- God, Angels, man, creation, the saints, and like questions are discussed. Each book is made up of a number of distinctions, and these again are divided into questions and articles. The text of the Lombard served as basis for the Commentators to give their own solution to the subject under consideration. These commentaries are rather works on the Lombard than simple, expositions of his meaning. This is sufficiently evidenced for by the diversity of opinion of the various commentators. This was the first comprehensive work of St. Thomas, and it "formed a mighty foundation for the further extension of theological efforts. The Commentary on the Lombard contains his whole teaching . . . though not in the thoroughly constructed form of an independent system."{6}

The Quaestiones Disputatae comprise the lectures delivered by St. Thomas in the University of Paris after he had finished his Commentary on the Lombard. "These are concerned with the most important and the most excellent objects of theological speculation, namely, with those matters which are treated of in the first and second parts of the Summa Theologica."{7} They contain in rounded form the treatment of certain questions that a commentary, following a given plan, forbids one attempting. There are sixty-three questions in all with four hundred articles; all these are given under a few general heads: De Potentia, De Malo, De Spiritualibus Creaturis, De Anima, De Unione Verbi, De Virtutibus, De Veritate. The articles are preceded by numerous objections, sometimes as many as thirty, under the form quod videtur non. St. Thomas gave his "best and most active attentiontotheirelaboration... It has been remarked that Thomas wished to bring the art of the Scholastic Dialectic to its highest perfection in these Quaestiones Disputatae."{8} They were written rather for the trained philosopher than for the beginner.{9} Under the heading De Veritate, the question of knowledge and of God are handled in detail. The Compendium Theologiae was written for his dear companion, Bro. Reginald. Its original plan was to embrace briefly all theology, in three books, based on the virtues, faith, hope, and charity. The first book alone, containing two hundred and forty-six chapters, was completed. The chapters are short and concise. "The whole work is an intelligible and succinct summary view of the system of St. Thomas."{10} This is strikingly true on the points of God, man's nature, and man's relation to the First Cause. "The doctrine of one God and the necessity of thinking of the condition of His existence, is derived in a strong and continuous series from the proof of a first highest mover of the world."{11}

The problem of God occupies the first place in all the works of Aquinas. "There is not a single one of St. Thomas's works that does not begin with the discussion of the existence and attributes of God."{12} This statement shows the importance attached to the question of God in our author's system; a glance at any of his greater writings will suffice to make this evident. God, for him, is the creative and sustaining Power of all things, and He is also their last end. Creation in all its forms gets meaning only when viewed in relation to Him, In the development of our subject we shall see how all comes from the hand of God, how everything bears some trace of His operation, and how He is the unifying element in the variety about us. A knowledge of Him, no matter how meagre, is worth more than a thorough knowledge of all that is less than Him, for He is the greatest object that the human intelligence can consider and seek to know. "Among all the perfections found in created things, the greatest is to know God."{13} In a proem to the second question of the Summa Theologica, part I, St. Thomas gives his attitude on this question: "Since the principal intention is to give a knowledge of God, and not only as He is in Himself, but also as He is the Source and End of things, especially of rational creatures, we shall first treat of God, secondly, of the tendency of the rational creature toward God, and thirdly, of Christ who is our way in tending toward God." Here we have his principal work outlined, and its basic thought is God.

In both Summae, God is the all-embracing, all-important problem. The Idea of God is the pivotal idea in these works. The subsequent developments and deductions are so intimately bound up with it that all stands or falls together with it. This is seen very strikingly in the fact that St. Thomas considers God as the cause of all things and likewise as their last end -- thus comprising the whole realm of the actual and the possible under all aspects. It is not an arbitrary measure on the part of Aquinas to give this prominence and preeminence to the God-question, for it arises from the very nature of the subject itself, from the very content of the Idea of God. The introductory remarks to the main divisions of the questions in the first part of the Summa Theologica show this clearly; the same is evident in the other Summa where he devotes a chapter (l. 1, c. 9) to outlining his order and method, saying, he will first treat of God in Himself, then of God as Creator, and finally of the relation of creation to God as an end.

It is natural to ask in view of the detailed presentation of this problem in St. Thomas, how much of this delicate net- work is due to his workmanship. Is he responsible for all, or is he only a systematizer? Neither, exactly. He inherited an Idea of God that showed signs of the thoughts of some great minds, and which had been growing and becoming richer under the guidance of a solicitous tradition; but this Idea was fully grasped by him and set forth in a way that combined all previous thought, and yet evidenced a selection that proclaims the master mind and gives title to originality. A cursory view of the principal authors he drew from, and the condition of philosophy at his time, will give his position more accurately.

Among the Greeks, the influence of Aristotle and Plato is unmistakable. His proofs for the existence of God are taken from them. God as Prime Mover and Intelligence are found in Aristotle, and "Thomas derived the most incisive proofs for the existence of God and for many of the divine perfections from Plato."{14} That Aquinas went beyond the Conception of God arrived at by these two philosophers is no matter for surprise, for their Conception had been enriched by modification and addition long before the days of our author. In the Christian era, St. Augustine, and Dionysius the Areopagite, and Boethius are largely utilized. They are quoted frequently, and some of their statements are taken as a basis for the development of the particular aspect of God he is considering. It is true, St. Thomas quotes from other writers both before and after Christ, yet there is not the same practical intimacy betrayed as in the case of the writers just mentioned. He considered of sufficient importance the De Divinis Nominibus of Dionysius and the De Trinitate of Boethius to write a commentary on them. His presentation however, is rather the outcome of his assimilating the various elements that attended the growth of the Conception of God than a conscious borrowing from different sources; he brought his synthetic and selective mind to bear on the materials the past had gathered, and threw these into the form that Christian Philosophy has recognized as its own since his time. The synthesis is partly due to the stimulation of his age, and partly to the actuality of certain problems at that epoch. Werner points out that the fundamental thoughts or axioms in the questions 2-26 of the Summa Theologica are derived from some philosopher, some philosophical writing, or Father of the Church, and thus concludes the acquaintance of Aquinas with the learning of the past and his leaning toward tradition; we might add, it is a characteristic of the work of St. Thomas to assimilate all the good he knew of in the efforts of others, no matter who they were.

The question of God was given especial consideration in the generations immediately preceding Aquinas. The attitude of St. Anselm, who thought about the subject, with a view of giving it a simple yet comprehensive basis, until he was weary and about to desist from his inquiries, is a worthy introduction to the attention it received at the hands of Scholasticism during its growing days. "Theodicy was always regarded by the Scholastics as one of the most important chapters in philosophy . . . Theodicy (and it alone) remained faithful to the proper genus of Scholasticism."{15} The close connection between Theodicy and Religion in those days made this a practical necessity. Before St. Thomas took up the question, the Schools had witnessed the Controversy about the Universals; Eclecticism, Mysticism, Pantheism, in turn passed by; the Arabian and Jewish Thinkers had given their version of Greek Philosophy that called for attention; his contemporaries or immediate predecessors, Alexander of Hales, Bonaventure, Albert the Great, wrote and influenced thought. There was certainly activity from the Pantheism of Scotus Erigena to the Angel of the Schools. The merit of Aquinas consists in the fact that he was not bewildered by the divergent views of previous thinkers, and that he did not branch off into a particular view of his own but accepted the truth contained in each, refuted fearlessly what he considered error, and out of it all gave us a conception that justly appreciates the careful efforts of many minds and ages.

If we specify in greater detail the condition of thought at the time of St. Thomas, we shall be in a better position to judge the value of the statement so frequently made that Aquinas was little else than an imitator. Philosophy in the Middle Ages was not a unit; there was much diversity in the opinions held and defended. Scholasticism was but one form of philosophic thought, and thus does not stand for Mediaeval Philosophy as a whole, as DeWulf and Lindsay very well point out. "The philosophy of scholasticism should be understood as really not the same thing as mediaeval philosophy."{16} This distinction is important in the sense that it recalls the fact -- too often overlooked -- that there was great mental activity in those times, with the consequence that a thinker had to choose one view among many. Aquinas chose pure Aristotelianism, and gave form to the system that honors him as its chief exponent. This choice implied a discrimination and an independence of thought that modifies to a large extent the imputation of a mere follower. His attitude toward the Pantheism of his time and the Arabian Philosophy are instances to the point. The statement of W. T. Harris -- "Pantheism versus Christian Theism was on trial" in the days of Aquinas, is true. None the less true is his tribute to the way St. Thomas met the issue of his day regarding the problem of God. Aquinas "stated the Christian Idea so clearly in the language of the Intellect that the development of six hundred years has not superseded his philosophical forms. In fact, his comprehension is confirmed by the profoundest thought of our own time. The necessity of a philosophical system that shall make personality its central principle, and exhibit the true difference between the beings of nature and human souls should revive in our theological seminaries the study of Aquinas."{17} It is noteworthy that the discussion of the question of God during the last century was carried on along the same lines as were prominent in the Middle Ages, according to the view of Janet and Séailles. "The progress made in our century consisted in sifting more precisely than ever the problem of God, in putting in presence of each other, for the first time, in an altogether direct manner, Theism and Pantheism. To limit this problem, to measure with accuracy the merits and defects of the personal and impersonal theory as such, has been the work of our century."{18} St. Thomas had to meet the Pantheism of Erigena, that of Bernard of Tours, Amaury of Bane, and David of Dinant. The last named identified God with first matter and provoked the only severe condemnation uttered by the ever mild and calm Angel of the Schools.

Pantheism was also taught by the Arabians. Creation out of nothing was unknown to them, matter was eternal. Their dualism, however, admitted of emanation, and was thus Pantheistic. They did not wish to separate God and matter absolutely, so they held that God created a first intelligence and from it all else proceeded. The source of this emanation was the thought of God, not His will. They taught the unity of the divine nature; finally, they denied to God a knowledge of individual and contingent things.{19} Ueberweg says of their philosophy: "The whole philosophy of the Arabians was only a form of Aristotelianism, tempered more or less with Platonic conceptions."{20} And this characterization is common with the historians of philosophy; to quote another. "In their method however, in their principles by which they apprehend the universe, and in their entire system of philosophical conceptions they stand, so far as our information on the subject reaches, entirely under the combined influence of Aristotelianism and Neo-Platonism; and the same is true of the Jews."{21} Aquinas has these philosophers in mind throughout his work, and refutes them as occasion offers, and he is also careful to show by explicit argument that his own position is not open to a Pantheistic interpretation.

Perhaps the question of God is the portion of the doctrine of St. Thomas that shows best that his undoubted admiration for Aristotle did not prevent him from being an independent thinker. No one that has contrasted his theodicy with that of the Stagyrite can fail to note the larger and more thorough treatment of Aquinas, and the presence of ideas wholly absent from the work of the Philosopher. These additions are due to the development of the Divine Idea in Christianity, but their full comprehension and expression are the work of Aquinas, and, to repeat the words of Harris, 'his comprehension is confirmed by the profoundest thought of our time.' Some writers also remark that St. Thomas never got beyond the teaching of his master, Albertus Magnus. "Thomas of Aquin is led and determined by Albert, and it would be a great mistake to consider him an independent thinker. . . . For the historian of philosophy Thomas is but a very secondary personage."{22} The relation of master and pupil in this case is of course very close, yet we can recognize the specific work of each. Windelband says justly: "The intellectual founder of this system (Scholasticism) was Albert of Bollstädt. It owes its organic completion in all directions, its literary codification, and thus its historical designation to Thomas Aquinas."{23} On the question of God itself the exprofesso treatment of St. Thomas is much more extended and complete than that of his master, who only wrote as much of his Summa as we have, at earnest solicitation.

Eucken says of Aquinas: "He was certainly no thinker of the first order. Yet he was not on this account a mind of no consequence or a fanatic. He was not much ahead of his times, but he synthesized and reconstructed what the age offered, and thus satisfied a pressing need of the historical situation."{24} Dr. Lindsay, in the article referred to, though he says Scholasticism has received undue contempt, yet refers to the "servility of Aquinas before Aristotle." Prof. Dewey, in an article on Scholasticism, seems to think that Albertus and Thomas were wholly dependent on Aristotle. He says: "In spite of (or better, because of) the conviction of Albertus and St. Thomas as to the relation of Aristotle to Church dogma, they are compelled to set aside certain doctrines as simply the products of revelation, utterly inaccessible to the natural mind -- it being clear that Aristotle had not taught the doctrine of the Trinity or the Incarnation, &c."{25} In contrast we have the words of Prof. Royce, "He (Thomas) also vindicated for philosophy a certain limited, but very genuine, freedom of method and of opinion, within its own province. As a result, Thomas stands from any fair point of view, Catholic or non-Catholic, decidedly high, not only as a theologian, but also as a rational inquirer."{26} If we take for granted that St. Thomas was a thinker of note and did good service to his day, can we hold that he has a message for our day? Opinion ouside the Church is not of a nature to warrant an affirmative answer. What Pope Leo intended by restoring the Philosophy of St. Thomas was not an imitation in the letter of the teaching of Aquinas, not the defending of specific doctrines whereon opinion is legitimately divided, not the adhering to statements that further knowledge has shown to be untenable; this much is held in a practical manner by all who are engaged in interpreting anew to our age the teaching of Aquinas. What the Pope desired, and what all true Neo-Scholastics hold as solid, are the essential principles that underly the Philosophy of St. Thomas. These are sound and have not yet been superseded. The Neo-Scholastic Movement is a school, if you will, as the followers of Descartes, Spinoza, Kant constitute a school; in this light it is entitled to as rational a consideration as any other philosophical movement recognizing a given thinker of the past as its head. Its fitness is not a matter of a priori judgment, but must find its justification in meeting as well, if not better, the problems that our times are trying to solve The fitness of the Philosophy of St. Thomas, in its essentials, for our day is not admitted by non-Thomists. "The philosophy of the Middle Ages with its highest point of development, Thomas of Aquin, we considered conquered and buried," says Eucken. "Its growth in individual places seemed rather a souvenir of the past than a condition of the present, or even a germ of the future, but now it has forced itself again with its world-embracing power in the fore-front of life and asks, not for toleration, but for domination."{27} He repeats the thought with more detail, showing wherein he considers the philosophy of St. Thomas insufficient for our time: "for his day Thomas was the leader of all Christendom, to-day he can be but the leader of a party."{28} Paulsen is similarly minded, for in the preface to his Philosophia Militans, he sets up the Philosophy of Kant as the true one, and says, Kant not only destroyed Materialism and Naturalism, but likewise, "dogmatic Supernaturalism or Scholastic Metaphysics." We will end with a statement of Prof. Royce. His article already referred to is very appreciative of Scholasticism and St. Thomas, yet he thinks the fundamental positions of the Philosophy of Aquinas call for readjustment if they are to meet the modern view of these problems. To quote him on the two points that bear on our work. "His (Thomas') theory of the nature and limits of human knowledge, a theory derived from Aristotle, especially calls not merely for restatement, but for readjustment, as soon as you try to apply it to the interpretation of our modern consciousness." We shall state the theory of Aquinas in the following chapter, and try to show that it is still applicable.

The other point bears still more directly on the subject we are handling, so we shall cite it at length. "The problem of the relation between God and the world, as St. Thomas treats that topic, is one which has only to be reviewed carefully in the light of modern science and modern philosophy, to secure an alteration of the essentially unstable equilibrium in which Thomas left this heaven-piercing tower of his speculation. Here I, of course, have no space to speak of a philosophical problem to which as a student of philosophy I have directed so much of my attention -- namely, the problem about the conception of God. But when I read, in more than one recent philosophical essay of Catholic origin, expressions that admit the decidedly symbolic and human character of the language in which even the dogmas of the Church have to be expressed so far as they relate to the nature of God, when stress is also laid, very rightly, upon that aspect of St. Thomas' teaching which emphasizes this very inadequacy of even the traditional formulas to the business of defining divine things, when I meet at the same time with admissions that St. Thomas' positive theory of the divine attributes involves these or these apparent contradictions, which still need philosophical solution -- then, indeed, I see not that our more modern thinking is wholly right and Thomas wrong -- but that Catholic Theology is nowadays in a position where it is bound either to progress, or to abandon the whole business of reviving the spirit of serious philosophical thinking, so that they like the rest of us are living in an age of transition."

These are but a few of the statements of the many that might be cited -- Froschammer, Hermes, Günther, and others might be quoted. We hope to show in this study that the estimates given against the value of the view of St. Thomas are incorrect, and that the treatment of the question of God by Aquinas -a question of prime importance with him and all philosophy -- is not a thing of the past.

{1} Werner, Der heilige Thomas von Aquino, v. 1, p. 801.

{2} Loc. cit., p. 803.

{3} Werner, loc. cit., p. 403.

{4} Hence often cited as Summa Philosophica.

{5} Werner, loc. cit., p. 404.

{6} Ibid., pp. 358-359.

{7} Ibid., p. 360.

{8} Werner, loc. cit., pp. 360-1.

{9} A. Fortmann, Die Systematik in den Quaestiones Disputatae des hb. Thomas 'von Aquino, Jahr. ? Phil. u. Spek. Theol., 1892, pp. 127-150.

{10} Werner, loc. cit., p., 389.

{11} Ibid., loc. cit., p., 388.

{12} Jourdain La Phiosophie de St. Thomas d 'Aquin, v. 1, p. 184.

{13} C.G., 1 1, c.47.

{14} Schneider, Jahr. f. Phil. u. Spek. Theol., 1893, p. 470.

{15} DeWulf, Histoire de la Philosophie Mediéval, p. 155.

{16} Dr. Lindsay, Scholastic and Mediaeval Philosophy, Archiv f Gesch. der Phil., v. 15, p. 42.

{17} Journal of Speculative Philosophy, v. 9, p. 327.

{18} Histoire de la Philosophie, p. 288.

{19} Stöckl, Gesch. der Phil. des Mittelalters, v. 2-1, pp. 124-130.

{20} Hist. of Phil, v. 2, p. 246. trans.

{21} Windelband, A Hist. of Phil., p. 316.

{22} Prantl. Geschichte der Logik, v. 3, p. 107.

{23} Loc. cit., p. 311.

{24} Die Lebensanschauungen der grossen Denker, pp 245-6, also, Thomas von Aquino und Kant. Ein Kampf zweicr Welten, Kant-Studien, v. 6.

{25} Dict, of Phil. and Psychol., Baldwin, vol. 2, p. 494. Prof. Dewey seems to forget that Albertus and St. Thomas believed in the Trinity and the Incarnation before they knew of Aristotle. They used the Stagyrite as an instrument; they explained these mysteries, as far as human reason could go, by principles derived from Aristotle. This is rather evidence of independence of thought.

{26} Pope Leo's Philosophical Movement and its Relations to Modern Thought -- Boston Evening Transcript, July 29,1903.

{27} Die Philosophie des Thomas von Aquino und die Cultur der Neuzeit, Zeitschr. f. philosophische Kritik, vol. 87-88, p. 161.

{28} Die Lebensansch., p. 249.

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