I have found myself in debates with Thomists who are looking to retrieve aspects of his theology in the combat against open theists and those who make God changeable. When I have suggested that Aquinas does not get us to theism with his natural theology because he does not think we can use reason to show that the universe had a beginning, the standard response is that I have not read Aquinas and don’t understand him. When I quote Aquinas as saying natural reason cannot show that the universe had a beginning, the response surprised me. Rather than acknowledging that perhaps Aquinas is not as strong on natural theology as others (Augustine and Hodge both think we can show that the universe had a beginning), I get a reply that astounds me.
Before telling you what it is, let me set it up by looking at a quote from Edward Feser’s book “The Last Superstition.” Fesser acknowledges, seemingly as a point of strength, that Aquinas does not set out to prove that the universe had a beginning. The “God” Aquinas proves is consistent with a universe that had no beginning. He says:
“Aquinas, like many other philosophical theologians, is not interested in trying to prove that the universe had a beginning and that God must have started it off some time in the distant past (which might seem to invite the reply that He may not be around now). Rather, he argues that even if the universe had no beginning in time, there would still have to be an Unmoved Mover keeping it going here and now, and at any other moment that it exists, past or future” (100).
The reply that astounds me is that God who creates the world and God who exists alongside a beginningless universe are not importantly different! They certainly teach that the universe is dependent on God, but believe it could be dependent and without a beginning (more on that soon). Feser is saying what we call God may or may not have created the world (it had a beginning). It is as if that difference does not make all the difference in what God we are believing. I discovered that it is very hard to get a Thomist to see why this is a significant difference. And if anything should make Thomism suspicious to us, it is that. I believe this is a good example of what happens when you say you can believe something without understanding it; believe in God even without understanding if God created the world or not.
In order to minimize the problem of the universe having a beginning, Thomists have told me that it is merely a matter of God’s relationship to the world and has nothing to do with the being of God. God is eternal (meaning without beginning) and unchangeable, whereas the universe is always changeable, and whether or not it had a beginning does not affect what God is. The problem with that reply is precisely in the concepts of “eternal” and “unchangeable.” If something is changeable, it cannot have existed without a beginning. So, if the universe is without a beginning, then there is something about it that is unchangeable. The essence of any argument to show the universe had a beginning will rely on the truth that what is eternal is unchangeable, and what is changeable is with a beginning. and so when the Greek Dualist says to us that the universe also had no beginning, they are changing who God is from “God is the creator that gives all else existence” to “God is one of two things that have no beginning.”
I believe this mistake is due to a failure in Aristotle that Aquinas uncritically absorbs. Feser tells us:
Furthermore, from an Aristotelian point of view, the explanation of motion or change is fundamentally about explaining the transition from potentiality to actuality, and even at those stages in which it is the existence of moving things rather than their motion that the argument focuses on, explaining this transition is always what is in view (276).
When Aristotle uses the term “eternal,” he means “unchanging.” The fundamental distinction Aristotle makes is between what is changing and what is unchanging. So Aquinas can affirm (Q46) that only God is eternal (unchanging) but also that the material world may or may not have had a beginning (he thinks it is changeable whether it had a beginning or not). Aristotle simply assumes that the universe is without beginning, and it isn’t, as Feser tells us, the question he is trying to solve. But that is part of Aristotle’s idolatry. It didn’t even occur to him to seek God the Creator, and instead, he put this idol (the unmoved mover) in the place of God. He could have and should have known the true and living God from general revelation. But Aristotle thinks in terms of “pure act” rather than that God alone is without beginning. Apart from God, the universe did not have any actuality (to use an Aristotelian term), and so it did not yet exist.
Aquinas says, “By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved that the world did not always exist” (Q46A2). Aquinas believes that the universe had a beginning but only because scripture says that. He believes we can show that the universe is dependent on God but also that it might be without beginning. The Thomists tell us that you can believe God exists without believing he created the world; what matters for Thomas is dependence, not if the world had a beginning. Within Greek Dualism, there is ordinary dualism (Plato) and dependent dualism (Aristotle), with Aquinas taking that second view. Dependent Dualism isn’t theism, and I think we can show by reason that something cannot be dependent/changeable and without beginning (Augustine and Hodge both think so). But that means you are not believing what is true about God. I am distinguishing between creating (bringing something into being) and acting on what already exists. These kinds of distinctions are what make all the difference in the way the world religions have defined “God.”
Feser is blurring the difference between Theism and Greek Dualism. Theism says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” God had no beginning, and everything else had a beginning. Greek Dualism teaches that there are two things without beginning (hence “dual”). God and the universe. Or matter and spirit. These are two competing systems with different definitions of God. If one is true, the other one is not true.
The Christian believes that general revelation clearly reveals God the Creator. The scriptures, time and again, call us to consider the works of God in creation. Eternal life is knowing God. If we don’t know that God is the Creator (if we deny there even was a beginning), then we don’t know God. Yahweh is known from both general and special revelation.
Question 4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What is God?” The answer is, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchanging in being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” You can see that this is much more than what any of the Five Ways gives us as “God.” Feser does much more in his work on the Five Ways than Aquinas did, and I think he sees the need to show how these arguments get us a full definition of God. I am encouraged by Feser’s belief that it is important for Christians to show God exists. My approach has been to use arguments to prove parts of this definition rather than expecting any one argument to conclude, “and this all men call God.” That overextension is where the problem lies.
In this definition of “God,” infinite, eternal, and unchanging are three different things. But Aristotle and Aquinas combine eternal and unchanging so that it would read “infinite, eternal, and eternal,” or “infinite, unchanging and unchanging.” Defining “eternal” starts with “without beginning.” What is eternal is. This is the name that Yahweh gave to Moses, and it is the eternal power that Paul tells us is clearly revealed in creation. Whatever had no beginning also has no end. So the Thomist cannot get us to this definition of God with natural theology because the Thomist cannot get us to “only God is without beginning.” It is also true that whatever is eternal is unchangeable (and infinite), but these are different attributes. And they are the incommunicable attributes (meaning the universe cannot be any of these three).
The Thomists might be reacting to what they think sounds like presuppositionalism. The Fideistic Presuppositionalist says that we must begin with the Triune God of the Bible or we don’t know God at all. The Rational Presuppositionalist says we must begin with Reason, or we can know nothing at all. But focusing here on the first one, is that similar to me saying if we don’t know God the Creator, we don’t know God? I don’t think there is a relevant similarity. In fact, it is Aquinas and the Fideistic Presuppositionalist that are similar. Each person of the Trinity is God, and God is (insert definition from WSC). If we don’t have that definition from general revelation, we aren’t able to say that each person is equally God.
Scripture specifically tells us we should know God the Creator. This is where God begins in his questioning of Job, our attention is drawn to this throughout the Psalms, Genesis 1:1, John 1:1, and Romans 1:20 says the eternal power of God is what is clearly revealed in creation. Only God is without beginning. Idolatry begins with attributing the eternal God to something else (the universe, a part of the universe). Sin begins with the temptation that we could be God. That first temptation asked us to believe that we can be what God is, which is impossible. Ever since that time, the world’s religions have taught us that we can become gods of our own or that we are already gods.
The Greek Dualist view of God is one of the idols of the nations (Ps 96:5). When the Christian is working in natural theology, he believes that he can show belief in these idols is sin and without excuse. In an ironic way, it turns out that Aquinas is minimizing natural theology. Far from being the champion of natural theology, he is telling us that it cannot show that God is the Creator. He ends up begging the question by looking to scripture on this point. Here is the circle: we know God is the Creator because scripture tells us, and we know scripture is accurate and trustworthy because it is from God.
Two of my favorite accusations from the Thomists are, “so you think you are smarter than Aquinas, and he has nothing we can learn?” I didn’t say either of those. But I do believe we need to be sober-minded as we evaluate systems. Take individual arguments from Aquinas on their own merit. Evaluate them for consistency. But don’t forget he is offering an entire system and at the foundation is his claim limiting natural theology.
Aquinas’s Five Ways each end with, “And this all men call God.” Is that God the Creator or the Greek Dualist God?” Neither Aquinas nor Feser think that matters. Natural theology, according to Aquinas, cannot inform us of this difference. The implication is that we cannot be held accountable for failing to know God the Creator from general revelation. We are called to know God in all that by which He makes Himself known. Do not settle for less.