The Metaphysics of Theism

Print ISBN 9780199246533, 2001 pp. [46]-[50]

natural reason. The plan of SCG, on the other hand, requires postponing all trinitarian discussions to Book IV. It obviously does make good pedagogical sense for a beginner in theology to take up all the knowable aspects of God's nature at the beginning of his study; but no aspect of God's nature that is knowable initially only via revelation could form part of natural theology.

What's more, the chapters of SCG—366 of them in the first three books alone—often consist almost entirely of arguments, one right after another—at least as many per page, I think, as in any of Aquinas's disputed questions. But in his Prologue to ST he cites the proliferation of arguments as another feature of thirteenth-century theology that renders most of its standard literature unsuitable for beginners. So for this reason, too, he would not recommend SCG as a textbook of theology.

But that very feature of SCG may seem to dispel any mystery there might have been about its purpose. This flurry-of-arguments approach, which Aquinas repudiates and carefully avoids in ST, seems to mark SCG as occupying one of the oldest niches in Christian theological literature: apologetics. And, by way of confirmation, in the historical section of the 'Apologetics' article in the New Catholic Encyclopedia the twenty-one lines devoted to the 'Medieval Period' do indeed start with these sentences: 'In the Summa contra gentiles Aquinas began with principles that he knew his opponents would acknowledge, the principles of Aristotelian philosophy. In the light of these mutually acknowledged principles Aquinas sought to

answer objections to the faith' (Cahill 1967).

33 Thomas Hibbs devotes the well-informed appendix ('Apologetics and the Summa Contra Gentiles') of Hibbs 1995 to considering and rejecting this characterization of SCG. I had written this book before Hibbs 1995 became available to me. It exhibits a wide acquaintance with relevant literature, but Hibbs's quite different approach yields an interpretation dramatically different from mine, as may be seen from these characteristic remarks: 'As we have seen, the understanding of the first three books as philosophy is violent and unfounded' (p. 181); 'Of course the believer is not a philosopher' (p. 184).

Aquinas is the only author and SCG the only book mentioned in that Encyclopedia article's tiny subsection on apologetics in the Middle Ages, and if what is said about it in those two sentences were correct, I suppose it would be satisfactorily classified as a medieval paradigm of apologetics. But at least the second sentence is mistaken. Neither Aquinas's professed aim nor his actual practice in the first three books of SCG is accurately described by saying end p.46


© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved that he 'sought to answer objections to the faith'.

34 In fact, Aquinas explicitly disavows any intention of arguing 'against mistaken views associated with particular people (Contra singulorum . . . errores)', explaining that their sacrilega aren't so well known to him that he can extract from their mistaken views the arguments with which to refute them, and contrasting his situation in this regard with that of the Church Fathers (antiqui doctores), to whom such details were accessible 'because they themselves had been non-Christians (gentiles) or at least lived among them and were very familiar with their teachings' (1.2.10).

What he promises, it seems to me, is just what he delivers. And here's what he promises:

We will aim first [in Books I—III] at the clarification of the truth that faith professes and reason investigates, bringing in both demonstrative and probable arguments, some of which we have gathered from the books of the philosophers and of the saints—arguments on the basis of which the truth will be confirmed and its adversary overcome. Next, in order to proceed from things that are clearer to those that are less clear, we will move on [in Book IV] to the clarification of the truth that surpasses reason, dismantling the arguments of its adversaries, and elucidating the truth of faith by means of probable and authoritative arguments, as far as God grants it. (1.9.55-6)

Apologetics conceived of as answering objections to the faith is a reactive enterprise. But Aquinas's enterprise in SCG, even in its fourth book, is an activity he is initiating. His agenda is influenced far less by objections to Christian doctrine that have come his way than by revealed propositions, and he often ends a chapter in Books I—III by appending to the series of arguments a short paragraph or two designed, as he promises in his introduction, to show 'how the demonstrative truth is in harmony with the faith of the Christian religion'(1.2.12) (see Introduction, sect. 3). But his distinctive, primary aim in the first three books is the systematic presentation of that 'demonstrative truth', the argumentative clarification and confirmation of this'truth that faith professes and reason investigates', relying only on reason's investigation of it, and sometimes approaching these tasks indirectly via the dismantling of arguments intended to support this truth's contrary.

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