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The Five Ways to God's Existence of Thomas Aquinas
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-07-14 08:39:36
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Thomas Aquinas has become the official favored philosopher/theologian of the Catholic Church. That was not always so. In fact while he was still alive he was suspected of heresy by the archbishop of Paris. His sin was that of basing his philosophy on the materialist Aristotle rather than the more spiritual and esoteric Plato.

Perhaps another one of his sins was that he was too smart for his own good. He was already teaching philosophy at the University of Paris at the age of eighteen in 1243 AD.  Those years were followed by thirty years of intense intellectual work (he died in 1274 at the age of 49) wherein he wrote the Summa Theologica (begun in 1266 and finished in 1273 shortly before he died and left unfinished). Basically Aquinas tries to prove that reason not only does not contradict faith but is a sine qua non for a faith that is robust, intellectually defensible and not a mere intellectually shallow fanatical cult. Grace builds on nature and reason is a natural endowment bestowed by God to his creature.

But actually his most important work is not the Summa Theologica but The Summa contra Gentiles which he had written previously between 1259 and 1264. In it Aquinas establishes, mostly by brilliant philosophical argument, the truth of the Christian religion, first proving the existence of God and then discussing the nature of God, creation and its purpose, the soul, ethics, sin, the Trinity, and so on.

As mentioned, rather than using Plato as the underpinning of his theology (as had been the case with Augustine), Aquinas reconciles Aristotelian philosophy with Christian doctrine. He extended and clarified many of Aristotle’s ideas making some original contributions to Aristotelian thought, just as Avicenna had done. Perhaps the most important of those contributions are the five ways to prove the existence of God via logical argument.

In the very first of the five ways Aquinas writes that the existence of God can be proved by considering the concept of change. Most of us can see that some things in the world are in flux or in the process of change and this change must be a result of something else, since a thing cannot change of itself. But the cause of the change itself, since in the process of change, must also be caused to change by something other than itself, and so on again, ad infinitum. Clearly there must be something which is the cause of all change, but which itself does not undergo change - as Aquinas puts it: “if the hand does not move the stick, the stick will not move anything else.” The first mover, Aquinas concludes is God. If this sounds familiar, it is because Aquinas is borrowing from Aristotle the concept of the “Unmovable Mover” as God, also borrowed by Avicenna.

In the second way Aquinas notices that causes always operate in series, but there must be a first cause of the series or there could not be series at all - so both the first and second way proceeds on the assumption that a thing cannot cause itself.

In the third way, Aquinas notices that there are things in the world that come to be and pass away. But clearly not everything can be like this, for then there would have been a time when nothing existed. But if that were true then nothing could ever have come into being, since something cannot come from nothing. Therefore something must always have existed, and this is what people understand by God. The first, second and third way are sometimes called variations of a more general argument which the Stoics called the Cosmological Argument where one reasons from the order found in the universe to a mind or a designer who created it. Interestingly enough, Heidegger’s Being and Time begins with this timeless question which atheists usually ridicule without in any way being able to answer or marvel at: why is there something rather than nothing?

In the fourth way, Aquinas shifts gear and offers a version of Anselm’s Ontological argument. In Aquinas’ version some things are noted as exhibiting varying degrees of quality. A thing may be more or less hot, more or less good, more or less noble. Such varying degrees of quality are caused by something that contains the most or perfect amount of that quality. For just as the sun is the hottest thing, and thus the cause of all other things being hot on earth, so there must be some fully “good” thing which makes all other things good. That which is most good is God.

In the fifth way Aquinas relied heavily on Aristotle’s notion of “telos” or purpose. All things aim toward some ultimate goal or end, But to be guided by a purpose or a goal implies some mind that directs or intends that purpose. That providential director is God.

Various philosophers and theologians have criticized this attempt to prove the existence of God by reason. They argue that the living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not the god of the philosophers devised and utilized by them to underpin their rational schemes; he is not an idol and a creation of the human mind, he transcends reason and logic and especially pure rationalism. We creatures reason exactly because we are imperfect. A perfect being would think and create at the same time; he would intuit but not reason. Aquinas would be the first one to agree with them, for he left the third part of his Summa Theologica unfinished having had one day a mystical vision compared to which he said that what he had written so far appeared to him like so much straw. But he never said that reason was worthless in itself and never burned his theological masterpieces like so much straw. Food for thought!

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Emanuel Paparella2008-07-14 10:47:25
A footnote: the cover statement (which is not mine, by the way) necessitates this footnote. While it is true that Aquinas imitates Aristotle’s natural theology in reasoning to God, (something he gives up toward the end of his life as mentioned) it is also true that what he attempts to clarify, the nature of the God as Trinity as Christianity has proposed since its inception, is not natural but revealed. Neither Aristotle, nor Plato, or Socrates for that matter, could have arrived by pure reason (and the corollary notion that knowledge is virtue…) to the notion of the Trinity and the Incarnation or original sin: that God who created the universe could then become Emmanu-El (God with us), integral part of it by taking on a body. However, the Greeks’ natural theology is useful to Aquinas as a scaffold on which to clarify the notion of Trinity. This is how Aquinas explains it: while intellectual knowledge is encapsulated in an inner 'word' which in us, the word is simply a quality of mind, in God it is a really a distinct entity, the Son. This identification of word and Son is consistent with the prologue to John's gospel:

In the beginning was the Word:
the Word was with God
and the Word was God. (John 1:1).

Similarly, the love of the Father and the Son for one another leads to the existence of the third person, the Holy Spirit. The real distinction of the three persons are the result of the generative relationships they hold to one another. Although relationships among created things are accidental, in God they are real. (Aquinas 166)

Emanuel Paparella2008-07-14 15:08:56
Footnote n. 2. Perhaps Aquinas’ overarching lesson is not that of convincing the whole world of the existence of God via reason, which admittedly is an impossibility, but rather that reason, although fallible and pointing to the imperfections of the created being, remains a valuable gift of God and as such it is a talent that cannot easily be disposed of and denigrated in the name of faith. In other words, grace builds on nature and does not contradict it, similarly faith does not require that we abandon reason but to the contrary we ought never fear to doubt and question all our intellectual idols, especially those dearest to us which end up substituting ideologies and the idolatry of self-worship (what man makes with his hands and mind) for religion. That in turn leads to fanatical cults galore and caricatures and travesties of what religion and belief in God ought to be and exemplify.

Emanuel Paparella2008-07-14 17:00:56
Footnote 3: ultimately Aquinas’ great works can be boiled down to this insight: the created human being ought to make and worship no idols, not excluding that of reason. When reason becomes an idol of sort one becomes a rationalist and ends up rationalizing what ought never be rationalized. The temptation for Aquinas to do that must have been strong but he resisted it successfully to wit the fact that he left the Summa unfinished and called it straw. Even Aristotle who branded Man a “rational animal,” and on whose philosophy Aquinas built his, never arrived at that awsome insight about reason!

LL2008-07-15 02:35:06
Moderation in everything!

nerd2009-12-08 03:20:15
this suck i got to write about this awww shucks

g62012-02-22 07:47:56

Kaitleen Roan2012-06-12 13:21:32

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