The objection of the nouvelle theologie

A third sort of grounds for contesting the propositions of Vatican I -on my account of them - draws the issues closer in with the sources in Thomas Aquinas on which my defence of them partly relies, and causes me to anticipate here a distinction which, by the end of this essay, will turn out to be all-important. Put in its plainest form, my case is that there are reasons of faith for maintaining that the existence of God must be demonstrable by reason alone, and that by 'demonstrable' is meant that the existence of God is a true conclusion validly drawn by inference from premises known to be true about the world. Moreover, it is my belief that Thomas Aquinas maintains just this proposition about the relation between reason and faith. This first proposition, however, needs to be carefully distinguished from a second, which is that the existence of God is knowable with certainty by reason but only within and as presupposing the context of faith, and that it is only in such terms that Thomas's proofs of the existence of God are to be understood, for that, it is said, is how he views them.

It would be misleading to align with any one theological school all those who reject the first proposition in favour of the second, whether either is taken absolutely and in itself or as a reading of Thomas Aquinas' mind on the matter. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the influence in the first half of the twentieth century of the so-called 'nouvelle theologie' of revisionist Thomism, especially in the version of it promoted by the French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac, has decisively shifted contemporary readings of Thomas in favour of the second proposition. As a result there is by now very largely a consensus among Catholic theologians in a series of general propositions which, if not exclusively to be attributed to de Lubac's influence, certainly characterise it. First, it is said21 - here

20 Plantinga, 'Reason and Belief in God', p. 71.

21 What follows is not meant as a formal paraphrase of de Lubac, but is rather a set of propositions which, under the powerful influence of de Lubac's thought, would seem occupying some common ground with the 'broadly Barthian' position just described - that to suppose that reason can, by virtue of its own native powers, 'know God with certainty' is to suppose the existence of a pure abstraction - 'reason alone' - which has no historical actuality. For there is not, and never has been, any actual human condition of 'pure nature' in which 'pure reason' could operate. Nature, and so reason, has always historically been graced, and any proposition about 'nature' or 'reason' which neglects this fact of history's always having lain under the divine providential and salvific action is bound to presuppose, or entail, an unacceptable dichotomy between creation and redemption, or between 'secular' and 'salvation' history, or, most likely, both. Thomas, it is said, made no such presupposition, and permitted no such entailment.

Consequently, whatever reason may attain to by way of knowledge of God - and on this account 'reason' can know God with certainty - it can attain only in so far as reason at least implicitly presupposes something that it cannot by its own powers know, even if, at the same time, it needs to know it. For secondly, there is in all human beings a natural desire for beatitude, for a happiness so complete that the desire for it could not be satisfied by the contemplation of any God which reason alone could know, but only by the vision of God of a directness and immediacy which reason is absolutely powerless to achieve and of which it cannot even know the possibility. Therefore, what human beings naturally desire cannot be satisfied by what human beings can naturally know. It follows from this, thirdly, that even that natural desire for God, which must be frustrated by the incompleteness of the contemplation of any naturally known God, cannot be known in its full character of frustration, except from the standpoint of faith. For it is only by faith that we can know of the possibility of that complete vision of God to which human reason fails to attain. Hence, the 'noble genius' of the pagan philosophers - of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Proclus - who did know God by reason, and who, as Thomas says, could experience only a 'great anguish' of frustration at reason's limitedness, did not know the true nature even of their anguish, for they did not, and could not, know that goal of human desire and knowledge by the standard of which theirs fell short. It follows from this, as Kerr puts it, that if the pagan philosophers did know God, nonetheless 'Thomas clearly thinks that the proposition "God exists", held as true by a non-Christian on the basis of theistic proofs, does not to represent a minimum consensus among contemporary interpreters of Thomas, especially, but no longer exclusively, on the European continent. For de Lubac himself see Surnaturel: Etudes historiques, Paris: Aubier, 1946; 2nd edn, Paris: Desclee de Brouwer, 1991. This work has no English translation, but see his The Mystery of the Supernatural, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1967.

mean the same as the proposition "God exists" held by a believer'. He adds by way of emphasis that the distinction here is not that between two ways, the pagan and the Christian, of knowing the same truth of God's existence, meaning the same by it, but that 'even the proposition [itself] "God exists" means something radically different when held on the basis of philosophy and "under the conditions that faith determines"',22 thereby seeming to imply, if not exactly affirming, a conclusion not easy to distinguish from that of Karl Barth, namely that a 'God of reason' is a false God. As Barth says: 'God is always the One who has made Himself known to man in His own revelation, and not the one man thinks out for himself and describes as God. There is a perfectly clear division there already, epistemologically, between the true God and the false gods.'23 In short, on this account it is false to say what I propose to argue in this essay, that we know by faith that the existence of God is knowable by reason alone, for what can be known by reason - operating as no doubt it can, in purely philosophical mode - could not be one and the same God as he who is known by faith. Moreover, on this account, it is false to say that Thomas maintains any such proposition.

In clarification, therefore, of how I propose to conduct the argument of this essay, I should say, first, that I do not propose to contest with those who defend these propositions of the 'nouvelle theologie', step by step, text by text, over the exegesis of Thomas's position - for such would require a very different sort ofbook from this, and in any case it has already been written by Fergus Kerr, albeit from a standpoint of Thomistic interpretation opposed to mine. I shall rather more simply make out the best case I can manage in support of my reading of Thomas. Moreover, I do not propose to respond directly to the challenge thrown down to my defence of the first, substantive, proposition by those of the 'nouvelle theologie' tendency who defend the second proposition, if only because, as in the case of Barthian neo-orthodoxies, it seems to me that they are broadly right in what they affirm, wrong only in what they deny. For in general I think it true that Thomas's proofs of the existence of God, the 'five ways' of Summa Theologiae la q2 a3, are in fact arguments set out by a Christian theologian attending to Christian theological purposes, not by a theologian masquerading for some purpose or other as a pagan philosopher. I fully accept that the 'five ways' are therefore proposed as proofs within a context of faith and of Christian practice, and so of theological instruction, of personal and sacramental worship and of a prayer whose

22 See Thomas, Summa contra Gentiles 3.48; Fergus Kerr, After Aquinas: Versions ofThomism,

Oxford: Blackwell, 2002, p. 67.

23 Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, p. 15.

consummation lies only in the supernatural vision of God in himself. But I deny that it follows from these undoubted truths about the context in which Thomas sets these 'proofs', that their character as proofs depends logically upon that context's being presupposed to them; I deny, in short, that they could stand as proofs only in so far as they presuppose the truths of faith within which they are set. At any rate, it does not follow from the fact that, for Thomas, these proofs form part of a wider and explicitly theological argument-strategy, that they lack the formal features of a valid rational argument in their own right. Nor do I think that Thomas believes this conclusion to follow: indeed, I shall argue that he thinks it false.

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