Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Eleonore Stump Lecture: No Predestination in Aquinas?

Yesterday the Thomistic philosopher Eleonore Stump came to my school to give the Thomas Aquinas day lecture. She described what she considered Aquinas' solution to the problem of suffering (basing herself primarily on the Angelic Doctor's commentary on Job). According to Stump, Aquinas holds that suffering is good for us because it eradicates sin within us. We may be temporarily unhappy (happiness being the goal of life in Thomas and Aristotle), but it will lead us to heaven. In heaven, we will know God and therefore enjoy supreme happiness. Hence, temporary unhappiness is justified for the sake of supreme happiness.

In the Q & A section, I asked her about predestination in Thomas. Aquinas very clearly asserts a hard double predestination in the Summa. If you doubt me, just read this:

My question was this: OK, some people suffer because it leads them to God (of course, this would be unnecessary without sin, but that's another issue!), but Aquinas clearly asserts that God predestines people to hell. So then, how does you solution compute with that? People God predestines to hell aren't going to suffer in this life as a means to go to heaven. They're just going to suffer here and then suffer more in hell.

I found her response unusual. First she stated that there was no "predestination" in Aquinas because God is outside of time and therefore there's no "pre." Well, yes, everyone in orthodoxy Christianity agrees with this-especially those theologians who accept election. I don't see the point here. "Predestination" is more of an analogical human turn-of-phrase for God's action in eternity. The issue is: does God elect or not? And Aquinas pretty clearly states that he does.

The second thing she said was that God does not act upon the human will as an efficient cause, but only as a formal cause. To translate this for you Lutherans familiar with Luther in Bondage of the Will, God determines the human will through the "necessity of immutability" (i.e., God gives a new heart to human beings, which they freely act out of it by trust and loving him) and not by the "necessity of compulsion" (God does not somehow "manhandle" us from heaven into having faith). You can see my point here already: No one (and this includes Calvin and Augustine along with Luther) who teaches the doctrine of predestination believes that God acts on human being in salvation by a "necessity of compulsion." Therefore, when she denies this in response to the issue of predestination, she was either setting up a strawman argument (since no one holds the position that she was rejecting) or was somehow unaware of how the Augustinian tradition (within which Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin stand) understands divine and human agency.

Then she asserted what she considers to be Aquinas position: God offers grace to everyone. When God offers his grace, he removes the sinful inclination from the human will. This places the human will in a state of neutrality between good and evil. If the person in this state of neutrality at least does not resist God's grace, then God gives then sufficient divine grace to will the good and therefore converts them.

The difficulty is several fold: First, Thomas along with Luther, Calvin, and Augustine denies that the human will can in any sense be neutral. A will that is neutral is one that is empty of content, and something that is empty of content does not exist. In fact, one of the odder parts of her book on Aquinas is when she cites Aquinas saying precisely this and then proceeds to assert the opposite in the next paragraph. Even if she was correct about Aquinas, it would be an incoherent position. In a state of neutrality, there would be no will to allow itself to be brought in accordance with God's saving purpose, much less resist it. Secondly, because God gives human being the capacity to will the good, they do not trust and love God unfreely, rather they simply do what they want to do. If a good tree bears good fruit, then a good will does good things freely, not by compulsion. In the same way, an evil will does evil things out of its own nature. This is basic Augustinian stuff- it was all worked out in the Anti-Pelagian writings and set down in the Council of Orange. Hence predestination does no abrogate the human will or its freedom in the sense of imposing a form of compulsion on it. Luther only talks about the "slave will" because he is polemically contrasting his position with Erasmus' "free will." Nevertheless, what he means by "slave will" is merely the will determined by the necessity of immutability- which is what the Augustinian tradition has historically referred to as "free will"- i.e. having the ability to do what you want to do and not the ability to do "whatever."

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The NT Wright Lecture at Calvin

NT Wright came to Calvin and I was as privileged enough to see him. He talked about how we get the Gospels wrong because we think that there about going to heaven when we die or building an earthly utopia. Instead, the Gospels are about "God becoming King." What this means is that in Jesus God has rescued us from sin and so we are now free to implement God's kingdom program by helping the less fortunate and reforming society in other ways. This of course, he points out, does not destroy the necessity of the second coming. NT eschatology (as his Doktor Vater George Caird and his C.H. Dodd would say) is inaugurated eschatology. The second coming completes the implementation of the kingdom begun in the Church by the power of the Spirit. Implementing the kingdom, it would appear, is about implementing a special divine law revealed in Jesus.

There is of course much good in this, but I find the language of "God becoming king" problematic. Moreover, I also think it strikes at what's fundamentally wrong with Wright's approach. For one thing: Why does God need to become king? As Luther notes, his kingdom will come- but we pray that it will come to us in grace. This is the difficulty. God already rules in his power and glory, but in a way that will destroy us insofar as we are sinful. Wright seems to attribute our situation of wrath to an absence of God's presence and rule. When God's kingship is absent (it would seem) things go haywire. Better use the law to implement his authority and then everything will be put right (excuse the pun)! But that's not the problem. God is already applying the law. He did so with Israel in the form of exile, and, (as Wright likes to emphasize) its continuing exile in the Second Temple period. So, the story of the Gospels is not about God applying is sovereignty (after he's taken a time out) but rather is power condescending to humanity in the form of grace. It's not about the application of God's rule, but rather about God's rule in grace.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Discontinuity of the Self in Justification: Kant's Take.

Here's a citation from McGrath's book on Justification. It's his description of Kant's understanding of Justification. Does this sound like anyone we know? (I'm giving a paper on him at the symposium, hint, hint!):

"Kant’s solution to this difficulty [the problem of guilt] is, in fact, apparently irreconcilable with the general principles upon which his moral philosophy is based, particularly the axiom that an individual is responsible for his own moral actions.  No individual can be good on behalf of another, nor can the goodness of a morally outstanding individual be permitted to remove the guilt of another.  The basis of Kant’s rejection of the concept of vicarious satisfaction (stellvertretende Genugthuung) is the principle that guilt, like merit, is strictly non-transferable.  It is therefore remarkable that Kant’s solution to the difficulty noted above is based on the assertion that the individual who turns away from his evil disposition to adopt a good disposition may be regarded as having become a different person: the old disposition is moralisch ein anderer from the new.  The discontinuity between the old and new disposition is such that Kant denies that they may be predicated of the same moral individual.  This conclusion appears to rest upon the assumption that the disposition itself is the only acceptable basis of establishing the identity of the moral agent.  Having established this point, Kant takes the remarkable step of asserting that the new disposition ‘takes the place’ (vertritt) of the old in respect of the guilt which is rightly attached to the latter disposition."

Friday, January 13, 2012

Luther and Aquinas on the Human Will.

In studying both the Summa and Bondage of the Will, it has occurred to me that due to the influence of Augustine Luther and Aquinas have essentially the same idea of divine omnipotence and the human will. Both agree that the human will is not some sort of neutral capacity that starts out as a blank slate and then just decides whatever it wants. Human beings have a nature. They act out that nature when they will things. A evil person wills evil freely, though he cannot but will evil insofar as he is evil. Just as an apple tree gives off apples freely, though it is in its nature to do so, so a person acts out their nature without coercion.

The difference comes from what one considers the basis of human willing: i.e. faith vs. love. For Aquinas, the human will is driven by the love of the good. God is the supreme good, but temporal realities are good to. Sin is failing to will God as the supreme good and therefore choosing a more limited version of the good. Nevertheless, humans are still choosing the good, they just are doing so in an inadequate manner. For Luther, the whole issue is faith as trust. God should be trusted above all things, but instead humans trust in other creatures and in themselves.

This means that for Luther sin is much more radical thing than it is for Aquinas. There is something of a zero-sum game between belief and unbelief. One either trusts in God or one doesn't. Trusting in creatures is not some how moving in the right direction. Rather it is antithetical to a proper relationship with God. For Aquinas, by desiring temporal goods one is still sort of moving in the right direction. One is willing the good, but not as well as one could.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Materialism is Fideism.

When I talk with Materialists (that is, people who claim that there natural or material causes and are therefore Atheists) they usually justify their unbelief in spiritual realities (primarily God) by stating that "you don't have to prove a negative."  In other words, they are saying, they are merely denying the existence of God.  It's like denying the existence of Trolls.  I am justified in outright denying the existence of Trolls unless some radical piece of data comes to light that contradicts that belief.  So, they are claiming, the burden of proof is on Theists to show that God exists.

The difficulty with this claim is the simple fact the none of our beliefs are held in isolation from one another.  For example, if I do deny the existence of Trolls then I am positively saying something about our sources of knowledge within the created world.  Since many peasants have a folk belief in Trolls (in a variety of different cultures), then I am making the claim that a proper basis of belief is not traditional folk belief, but rather is something else.  That is a positive assertion, rather than a negative one.  Moving to the question of God's existence; saying that God does not exist presupposes a Materialist metaphysic (i.e., only material entities and causes exist) and therefore actually isn't a negative at all, but a positive assertion that there is nothing beyond the material world.

Most Atheist/Materialist types don't get this because of how they think about their belief system and the nature of knowledge.  What they assume is that a world of purely material causes is somehow obvious and that belief in anything beyond it is irrational.  Hence, they think that Theists simply randomly and irrationally assert the existence of something beyond the world when they have no justifiable way of making said assertion.  It is a pure act of "faith" (as they understand the term), which means for them, irrational belief in something one cannot prove.

There are several difficulties with this view of things, not least is that the Materialist worldview is actually one possible in a post-Christian culture (the Japanese are still Animists, even though they have developed high technology).  Genesis 1 empties the universe of gods and goddesses in the way that other ancient cosmologies don't.  If you reject YHWH, then all you have left are material causes and laws.  Hence Atheism and Materialism presupposes "faith" in a particular worldview that has historically not been "obvious" to no one outside of our post-Christian culture.

Now comes the second problem: namely Atheism/Materialism have no ability to give an epistemic account of themselves.  In other words, as Alister McIntyre has pointed out, worldviews only work insofar as they are able to give an account of themselves as believable.  Theists are able to give an account of themselves.  Theists claim that they can know that God exists because he 1. accounts for the existence of the laws of nature and of morality (which are easy to explain with a God, but not without one).  2. That God has revealed himself to humans.  Humans who know of God's existence do not randomly assert that there's something beyond the world of material causes, but rather explain their knowledge of God by stating that he has in a sense broken through the veil of material causes and made himself known.  Something beyond our immediate experience is knowable because he has entered into our experience.

Therefore the difficulty of Atheism/Materialism lies in the fact that it has no way of giving an account of itself epistemically the way that Theism can.  First, it asserts the laws of nature and morality hold good without a law giver.  Whereas in all other cases where we can visibly discern the structure of the casual order, design and order presupposes a law-giver and designer, according to Atheists, we are to believe that when it comes to the created order as a whole, there is one a huge exception.  Secondly, it cannot give an account of how it knows that there are only material causes.  Whereas Theists have the mechanism of supernatural revelation that makes the unknowable knowable, Atheist have no such mechanism.  For Materialists to know that there are only material entities and causes, they would, (so to speak) have to climb into heaven and find it empty.  This is something that they clearly cannot do and therefore they cannot account for their lack of belief in the supernatural.  Their argument is circular: Material entities and causes alone exist, because we can only know material causes and entities.

This being said, the structure of belief in Materialism and Atheism is actually identical with the fideism that they accuse Theists of.  Without actually being able to give any account of the basis of their belief, Atheists and Materialists randomly assert that there is no God and that there are only material causes, when they have absolutely no ability to give an account of how they know this.  For this reason it is Materialism which is actually fideism, and not Theism.