Natural Theology In The Middle Ages

At the close of the invocatory first chapter of his Proslogion Anselm (Anselm 1962:7) echoes Augustine (see Augustine, On John: 40, §9:1874:26; cf. 40, §10; 28; 27, §9; Augustine 1873:387) in using the phrase 'credo ut intelligam' ('I believe in order that I may understand'). This remark has commonly been interpreted as stating the theological approach used in this work. Examination of Anselm's argument, however, indicates that it is not based upon faith (credere), as might be expected, but upon what are put forward as self-authenticating reasons. The basic premise of Anselm's argument is the definition of 'God' as 'that than which nothing greater can be conceived' (Anselm 1962: ch. 2, 7). On this basis Anselm argues that it is incoherent to hold that God as so defined does not exist (and hence that God must exist), and that God must exist as one who, as the highest of all beings, is 'whatever it is better to be than not to be' (ibid.: ch. 5, 11). The details of Anselm's argument need not detain us here. What is important to note is that what he intends to put forward is an a priori argument that demonstrates, by unpacking the implications of a supposedly self-evident premise (namely, what is meant by 'God') by incontrovertible reasoning, both that God exists and that God basically has the attributes traditionally ascribed to the divine.

The validity of Anselm's so-called 'ontological argument' for the existence of God has been the subject of wide-ranging debates (Hartshorne 1965), while his deduction of the attributes of God has also been challenged. For instance, his assumption that God as 'the supreme Good'

(Anselm 1962: ch. 5, 11) must, among other attributes, be 'passionless' (and hence 'affected by no sympathy for wretchedness'—ibid.: ch. 8, 13f.) arguably shows that what in one cultural era are regarded as the highest qualities of being are not necessarily deemed to be such in another era. Nevertheless, whatever logical defects and cultural prejudices may be identified in his argument, Anselm presents in Proslogion a classical a priori form of natural theology. The conclusions which he reaches are supposed to depend upon nothing other than a premise and inferences which are intuitively recognized to be correct.

Thomas Aquinas is not convinced by the a priori kind of argument presented by Anselm. In his judgement, that God exists is known by God to be self-evidently true since God is aware of the nature of God's own being, but it is not so knowable by us 'because we are not able to conceive in our minds that which God is' (Summa Contra Gentiles I, 11, 2—Aquinas 1975:81). There are, however, other arguments that, in his judgement, demonstrate that God is and what are some of the attributes of God (SCG I, 13ff.—ibid.: 85-304; Summa Theologica I, 2, 3—Aquinas 1947:11-48). These arguments, and especially the five 'ways' by which Aquinas claims to demonstrate the existence of God (namely, the arguments for the first mover, the first efficient cause, the being having its own necessity that is the cause of all others, the perfect being, and the being which gives intelligent order to the world (SCG I, 13— Aquinas 1975:85-96; ST I, 2, 3—Aquinas 1947:13f), have had a major influence on the development of natural theology. A great deal of the subsequent work in the subject can be regarded as providing either footnotes and amendments to what Aquinas discerned, or criticisms of his kinds of argument.

Because of his influence on natural theology, it is important to note how Aquinas himself understood the significance of such reasoning. He holds that while some truths about God are beyond the competence of human reason and can only be apprehended through revelation, 'there are some truths which the natural reason also is able to reach' and which 'have been proved demonstratively by the philosophers, guided by the light of the natural reason' (Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 3, 2—Aquinas 1975:63). He goes on to point out that the truths discerned by reason and those manifested by revelation cannot conflict because both are 'true' and because what God makes us able to know naturally cannot conflict with what God makes known to us by revelation (SCG I: 7—Aquinas 1975:74f). Furthermore there are, in his opinion, 'fitting arguments' which give good reasons for assenting to revealed truths (see SCG I: 6—Aquinas 1975:71). Nevertheless, in spite of these remarks, Aquinas' confidence in the power of human reason to discern and to establish truths about God is significantly limited. He considers it important that God makes known by revelation even those truths which in principle can be grasped by human reason. This is because not all people have the time, competence and disposition to reach these truths, because such knowledge can only be reached after long training and reflection, and because human reasoning is known to be liable to err. The limitations of human reason in practice thus make it 'necessary that the unshakeable certitude and pure truth concerning divine things' should be revealed. Divine providence meets this need. It instructs us 'to hold by faith even those truths that the human reason is able to investigate' in order that all may 'have a share in the knowledge of God, and this without uncertainty and error' (SCG I: 4— Aquinas 1975:68).

The most important developments in natural theology in the centuries after Aquinas did not consist of further extensions of his arguments nor of the formulation of novel ones, but in increasing questions about the competence of this approach to theological understanding. Investigations into the character of the reasoning involved in natural theology were held by some to show that it can at best provide only a very limited foundation for theistic belief, and possibly no significant foundation for it at all.

One major contributor to these developments was Duns Scotus. For example, he concludes his De Primo Prindpio by pointing out that while natural reason can prove 'the metaphysical attributes' of God (as 'the first efficient cause, the ultimate end, supreme in perfection, transcending all things'), it cannot demonstrate such doctrines as that God is 'omnipotent, immense, omnipresent, just yet merciful, provident of all creatures but looking after intellectual ones in a special way'. These attributes of God are matters of belief, not of reason. As such, in Duns Scotus' judgement, they 'are the more certain since they rest firmly upon your [sc God's] own most solid truth and not upon our intellect which is blind and weak in many things' (4. 84-6—Duns Scotus 1966:142-6; cf. Duns Scotus 1962:162).

Another thinker in this period noted for learning and ingenuity is William of Ockham. According to Etienne Gilson he 'always maintained that absolutely nothing could be proved about God in the light of natural reason, not even his existence. To him...what reason can say concerning theological matters never goes beyond the order of mere dialectical probability' (Gilson 1938:87f). Ockham's subtle distinctions lead him in his Quodlibeta Septem, for instance, to conclude on the one hand that it is possible to demonstrate that there must be only one God if by 'God' is understood 'some thing more noble and more perfect than anything else besides him', but that it is not possible to demonstrate that such a being exists. On the other hand, if by 'God' is meant 'that than which nothing is more noble and more perfect', it is possible to demonstrate that such a being exists but not that there is only one such being (I, q. i in Ockham 1957:125f, see V, q. i in ibid.: 100). Unfortunately for natural theology, the latter way of understanding what is meant by 'God' is a theologically inadequate concept of the divine. According to Ockham, the fundamental truths about God are to be held as articles of faith, and not as the conclusions of rational reflection. Furthermore, where the declarations of faith and the findings of reason contradict each other, one must hold what faith lays down rather than what reason claims to show (Ockham 1957:133f.; cf. Ockham 1969:34-70).

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