Proof and foundationalism

Which brings us back to the offence of onto-theology. Though Gunton does not accuse Thomas in just that term of 'onto-theological' error, he clearly links the supposed deficiencies of his doctrine of creation with what he perceives in Thomas to be an excessive degree of indebtedness to Neoplatonic hierarchical continuities across some common scale of

22 'Thus it is, therefore, that each thing is said to be good by virtue of the divine goodness, as the first exemplary, effecting and final origin of all goodness. Nonetheless, each thing is said to be good on account of a likeness to the divine goodness inherent to it, which is formally its own goodness by which it is named.' (my italics) - 'Sic ergo unumquodque dicitur bonum bonitate divina, sicut primo principio exemplari, effectivo et finali totius bonitatis. Nihilominus tamen unumquodque dicitur bonum similitudine divinae boni-tatis sibi inhaerente, quae est formaliter sua bonitas denominans ipsum.' ST 1a q6 a4 corp.

23 'One must not understand the statement that God is at work in everything in nature as if it meant that the thing itself did nothing; rather it means that God is at work in the very activity of nature and free will.' De Potentia q3 a7 corp. (McDermott, p. 302).

being, on which God is situated, albeit as top doh, but still situated on it. And of course to situate God on any common conceptual ground with creatures such that God and creatures are represented as instances of that same conception, however otherwise distinct, is onto-theological error. Hence, even if it is all too easy to show that Thomas is no 'emanationist' of the sort Gunton thinks he is, it may not be so easy to defend him against accusations of onto-theology when we observe how convinced he is - perhaps I ought to say at this stage of the argument, 'appears to be' -of the possibility, indeed of the necessity, of a natural theology: the possibility and the necessity, that is to say, of rational, non-faith-dependent, demonstrations of the existence and nature of God. For, leaving on one side the particularities of Gunton's reading of Thomas on creation, the suspicion of onto-theological error seems to be aroused in principle by Thomas's broader theological strategies.

For it would seem that in principle any conception of faith - hence of theology - which requires the rational demonstrability of the existence of God must be committed to a form of rationalist 'foundationalism', which appears to be the proposition that in some way (and there will, no doubt be a variety of ways) Christian theological truth is logically dependent upon rationally established truths about God. And since I do not here propose to consider this particular objection to natural theology - since I know of no defence of so strong a form of foundationalism - let me say in passing that there does appear to be a form of weak 'foundationalism' implicit in the Vatican decrees. For sure, we have seen that those decrees offer no 'strong' foundationalism, for, as we have seen, they say nothing at all about having to prove the existence of God by the natural light of reason before any Christian theology can get off the ground; or that in any way at all you would have to know the existence of God to be demonstrable by reason in order to do any Christian theology. They say merely that if you have not mistakenly articulated your Christian theology, then it will follow from what, within it, you can say about the trinitarian God, first, that the existence of the one Creator and Lord God is demonstrable by the natural light of reason, and, secondly, that the God thus known by reason is one and the same God, not formally but materially, as the trinitarian God of Christian faith. In short, a test of whether your Christian theology has truly grasped its own object in faith is whether, on that account, reason has been permitted a place for the possibility of knowledge of its object in its own 'natural light', whether or not that place has been explicitly acknowledged.

It would seem that Gunton's principal objection to Thomas's theological procedure concerns the second of these two propositions, for in the fact that - if fact it be - in his most mature theological exposition, the incomplete Summa Theologiae, he prefaces his theology of the Trinity with what has seemed to some to be a 'purely philosophical' treatise de Deo uno, it would seem to Gunton that 'monist', 'necessitarian' and 'emanationist' tendencies have been allowed to disorientate and distort the authentically Christian and trinitarian doctrine of creation.25 The distinctively Christian theology, Gunton thinks, must begin with the trinitarian Godhead, for it is not Christian theology until it does. No Christian theology which begins, as Thomas's appears to him to begin, with a divinity whose credentials as God have to be established first rationally, can ever proceed thereafter in Christian authenticity. And the evidence for that, if not provided on grounds of logic, is to be found at least in the facts of the matter: it is for this reason, he thinks, that Thomas's doctrine of creation is ridden with monist infection, and so entails a marginalisation of trinitarian faith. And the virus is natural theology.

The ratio Dei

It is possible that a certain rather aprioristic cast of mind might offer a quasi-foundationalist defence against Gunton, thinking it reasonable to suppose that a Christian theology, whether of the incarnation, or of the Trinity, or of creation, or of any other Christian doctrine, would have to set out first some account of what God is, some conceptual presuppositions, concerning at least minimal criteria (or perhaps 'heuristic' anticipations) governing what would count as talking about God when you are talking about the incarnation, or the Trinity, or creation.26 You might particularly suppose this to be necessary if you reflect upon the naivety of the assumption which appears to underlie Gunton's polemic against Thomas, who, Gunton supposes, cannot be talking about the Christian God when in the Summa Theologiae he prefaces his discussion of the Trinity and creation with a philosophically derived account of the existence and nature of God as 'one'; whereas he, Gunton, can be guaranteed to be talking about the Christian God just because he explains creation

25 Gunton, Triune Creator, p. 99.

26 And Thomas does say that in the context of a demonstration of God's existence you would at least need to know something about what you are attempting to prove the existence of. But even then Thomas explicitly denies that we can know in advance of proof what God is, for it is what we show the existence of which shows what God is. What we need by way of equipment for the purposes of proof is knowledge of the divine effects and some knowledge of the grammar of the noun 'God': 'ad probandum aliquid esse, necesse est pro medio quidsignificetnomen, non autem quod quid est: quia quaestio quid est, sequitur ad quaestionem an est. Nomina autem Deum imponitur ab effectibus . . . unde, demonstrando Deum esse per effectum, accipere possumus pro medio quid significet hoc nomen Deus.' ST 1a q2 a3 ad1.

in trinitarian terms. In this theological naivety, Gunton appears not to be alone. Christians commonly tell us, rightly, that the God of Christian faith is the triune God; from which they appear to derive the complacent conclusion that just because they talk of the Trinity they could not be talking about anything other than God. But no such consequence follows, and Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity ought to serve as a warning against such complacent assumptions, for there he demonstrates quite plausibly that it is possible to extend your 'theology' over the whole range of Christian doctrines and practices - the Trinity, the incarnation, the church, the sacraments, even devotion to the Virgin Mary - and to preserve every manner of Christian theological jot and tittle in the exposition of them, but entirely as translated out in terms of the human, by the simple device of inverting, as he puts it, subject and predicate.27 Thereby he demonstrates, to put it in Christian terms, the possibility of a purely idolatrous theological exposition of the entire resource of Christian belief and practice, in which, in the guise of the soundest doctrinal orthodoxies, the Christian theologian but worships his own nature, in the reified form of 'God'. One is reminded of the idolatrous schizophrenic who, when asked how he knew he was Jesus Christ, replied that it was really quite simple, for when he prayed he found he was talking to himself. And if Feuerbach fails to convince, Jesus might: not everyone, he once said, who cries, 'Lord, Lord', is worthy of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 7:21).

It might therefore be thought that it is in view of such considerations that Thomas, when asking what is the formal object of sacra doctrina, dismisses the obvious answer that it is the study of central Christian doctrines, such as the sacraments, or redemption, or Christ as person and as church, since those and other such doctrines give you the material object of sacra doctrina but not its formal object: that answer, he says, would be like trying to define sight in terms of the things that you can see - human beings, stones or whatever - instead of things qua visible, that is, as coloured. The formal object of sacra doctrina is rather, he says, all those things revealed to us through Jesus Christ, but specifically sub ratione Dei: either because they are about God, or because they have a relation to God as their origin and end: unde sequitur quod Deus vere sit subiectum huius scientiae.28

If that is so, then we need to know what would count as the consideration of the Christian revelation sub ratione Dei - as distinct, therefore, from a consideration of the same content of that revelation in the manner

27 Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957, pp. 17ff.

28 ST 1a q1 a7 corp.

of a Feuerbach, sub ratione hominis. In view of this a certain kind of aprior-istic mentality might suppose that this is a conceptual matter which needs to be settled by a pre-theological definition, and, if pre-theological, then necessarily by a philosophical definition; and by a philosophical argument which establishes that the definition is instantiated - and thus proves the existence of the God so defined. This, if we could take it to be Thomas's opinion, would explain and lend credence to that account of his theological procedure which so worries the theological Guntons and causes in them such suspicions of onto-theology, whereby after a preliminary discussion of theological method in the first question, Thomas engages in the Summa Theologiae in no fewer than twenty-five questions - some 149 articles - in 'natural theology' before he gets round to even preliminary discussions of the Trinity. It is as if the necessity of establishing what would count as the ratio Dei before doing properly Christian theology, and as a regulative criterion of when we are doing it, requires proofs 'by the natural light of reason' of the existence of God, and then of his attributes. Moreover, once you have supposed that that is Thomas's procedure, it would come naturally to mind that it is that 'necessity of faith' which the first Vatican Council had in mind when it decreed it to be a dogma that such proofs are available to us.

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