More thoughts on Aquinas

When I was preparing my previous post it wasn’t actually the parallel of Aquinas’ teaching on God with Calvin that struck me most, though that suited the point of the post better. It was how much what I was reading cast light on the Scriptural presentation of God (or vice versa), just as it did when I first read Calvin. Both are an attempt to put consistent philosophical flesh on what is assumed by the Bible writers, however paradoxical it sometimes appears.

In this they seem to differ from their opponents, who invariably work from viewpoints like: “Everyday experience or human reasoning say that free will contradicts God’s sovereignty, and if you squint a bit and nudge the text around, the Bible can usually be made to fit that experience.” Aquinas, although he tries to explain how God can be God, and may well err, nevertheless allows him to be God, and the God of the Bible at that.

Now it’s possible to misunderstand Aquinas, like any other writer. My last post started with what I take to be an example of that in not seeing past his “chance must exist in the world” to his “…and God’s providence must oversee it.” But neither is Aquinas opaque – his meaning is clear enough to enable one to agree, or to disagree, with him. Yet if we take an inspired writer like Paul, the same thing is true. All sides will try to bend his opinion to their side, but he’s not so obscure, actually, that one can’t see that his “philosophy of God” is of the same general nature as Aquinas’. Man is responsible for his choices – yet God predestines the elect to conformity to Christ. God is transcendant, yet is intimately involved with all events.

It’s not just one particular argument – it underpins all Paul writes. For example, as I happened to read Philippians 2 today (with this post at the back of my mind), I read that Paul’s companion Epaphroditus had almost died through illness, but God had mercy on him, and also on Paul to save him from excessive sorrow. Is Paul claiming a miracle in answer to prayer? Clearly not specifically – he is simply affirming that God’s providence, not impersonal physics or blind chance, enacts his will, and that in detail and in all circumstances.

We can, of course, trace the same “philosophy” beyond Paul, to Jesus himself in sayings like “No man comes to me unless the Father draw him” or “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man!” Indeed, this kind of vision of God pervades both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

But here’s the point that struck me. In the old days one tested theology, and philosophy too, by how it accorded with Scripture. But there are now those “Evangelicals” saying that Jesus, being incarnate as a true man, must therefore have erred on occasions as true men do. And Scripture also, by analogy, should not be judged true by its propositional claims, which may well err, but by a deeper view of inspiration. Peter Enns, for example, writes:

The unity of the Bible is more subtle but at the same time deeper. It is a unity that should ultimately be sought in Christ himself, the living word.

Now any Christian will say, “Amen” to that … until, perhaps, they ask themselves what it actually means and, like me, can’t work it out. The two possible explanations for that are either that, unlike Enns, one has thoroughly missed the core truth about Christ himself and how he unifies this error-ridden Scripture. Or else that it doesn’t actually mean anything significant at all. If, of course, one states the second, one potentially convicts oneself of the first – and who wants to own up to that?

As anĀ  aside, more or less, let me say that my own view of the Bible arose from the most supernatural experience of my life, which was (as a result of certain circumstances a few years after my conversion) a sudden and profound insight into the truth of the Bible, the joyful discovery each day of how its teachings made sense to my life in Christ and brought his life to me and, secondarily, the recognition of that kind of understanding when I saw it in non-biblical writers and speakers. So you’ll understand that the argument that I’ve missed the whole point of the Bible by a tradition-bound attachment to the text doesn’t cut much ice with me. If it’s true, it’s because I’ve been deceived by demons – and demons are one of the first “errors” to go in the new understandings! That need not persuade you, but it does at least explain why the new view doesn’t persuade me.

Let’s apply the new thinking to the Aquinas/Calvin/Paul view of God. That Paul should hold something like this view is humanly hardly surprising, as I gather the Pharisees, such as he had been, held such convictions as opposed to the Sadducees. What would need explanation, then, if Paul was actually a supporter of some of the alternative views ascribed to him, is how he came to ditch his Pharisaic views of, say, predestination without drawing specific attention to it to avoid confusion. Jesus too, may well have picked up such a view of God from Pharisaic teaching in the synagogues of his youth. But if such a philosophy of God was around, what is to say that it is not part of the same “erroneous” cultural baggage that made Paul (allegedly) accept ancient cosmology, and both Paul and Jesus to teach as if Adam were an historical figure, not having the advantage of an education in modern genetics?

By the same token Jesus and Paul had no education in post-Aquinas philosophy or theology – logical positivism, for example, or Open Theism. They had only what was available to them in their limited culture – the culture, largely, of the Bible. Perhaps, then, in seeking to ground our understanding of God “in Christ himself”, we need to ditch everything that Scripture actually teaches us about God: his sovereignty, providence, predestination, and governance of nature, chance and human will. And miracles too, while we’re about our Copernican shift. And since Scripture implies strongly that Christ is God, we need to ditch everything it teaches us about Christ too, so that we can find its meaning in Christ alone.

The intellect, you see, counts for nothing – only Christ counts! And if that confuses your simple Christian soul, there are a number of books to help you, all written by academic theologians who have the intellect to embrace such deep truths … Hark! Methinks I hear the sound of one hand clapping!

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to More thoughts on Aquinas

  1. GD says:

    While I find these thoughts interesting, I am struggling to identify a coherent theme through this post. I will try with this: Are you saying we are too quick to believe the Bible is filled with error? Or, do you think we take chance to contradict God’s sovereignty? If it is yes to these questions, does this mean that such teachings are rationalised by the nebulous, “all things are in Christ?” by so called theologians?

    If I have not understood, please elaborate.

  2. Jon Garvey says:

    Hi GD

    The central thought is about the revisionism of someone like Peter Enns (previously employed by BioLogos and recently posting there – enfant terrible but very popular in TE circles), whose thesis is that the Bible is full of errors (because human) but yet somehow embodies deep truth from God. I believe that’s is in the end untenable.

    Enns will take Romans 5 as evidence that Paul built his new-Adam Christology on a false view of Adam’s historicity, and that therefore it is not reliable. But that doesn’t matter because … well, he’s less clear on the positives than the negatives. The “it’s meaning is in Christ” nostrum seems to be all there is.

    I was trying to show that by the same process, one would have to jettison major biblical themes like the whole doctrine of God, on the basis that the writers had got their ideas on free-will, providence etc from erroneous contemporary philosophy rather than the Holy Spirit.

    As for chance and sovereignty, that is one of the muddy areas in theistic evolution: its major writers sometimes deny God’s lordship of chance, often under some such heading as “nature’s freedom”, or more often steer away from answering it. They can’t bear the thought of God’s “interfering” in nature.

    Anyway, all these things are recurrent themes on this blog, which is why maybe I’ve not filled in enough detail.

  3. GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    Thanks I get it now.

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