For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
‘We can see from all this how far from verifying their position are those who maintain that here below our knowledge of the existence of God is evident. They are perfect believers who take their faith for evidence. Their mistake does them personally no harm. But it is dangerous to lead unbelievers to think that such reasons for the existence of God are the only ones a philosopher can have. Before inadequate arguments, those who have neither faith, nor God, nor demonstrations of His existence, conclude that God does not exist. As for those who perceive the weakness of such arguments, but believe in the existence of God, they simply come to the conclusion that this truth is neither evident nor demonstrable, and can only be accepted by faith.
For him (Aquinas) they signify (the words above from Romans 1) that man can starts from God’s effects and come to know His existence; and that man can only know God’s existence by starting from His effects.’
The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas by Etienne Gilson
Oddly enough, I heard over the past couple of weeks two or three different people mention ‘Thomism’, but they were referring to totally different things that I assume to be in Thomas Aquinas’ thought. Of course, I have no idea what it means, as I grow older, I grow a bit less assertive of calling anything much of an -ism whether Thomism, Platonism, Calvinism, or Post-Modernism. Descriptions of such systems flatten everything and somehow are oddly too vague for me. I’m sure it can be useful in arguing about generalities though. In any case, it made me think I ought to do a little digging on Aquinas. Perhaps it is my fear of missing out. Unfortunately, I sold my abridged Summa since I don’t like abridged things. So all I have is an old dense volume by a French guy names Etienne.
In any case, he is summarizing how Aquinas views the world, and it is moderately interesting. The question at hand is, how do we know who God is? On the simple side, previous interpreters (Augustine, John of Damascus, and Anselm) suggested various proofs for God. But Aquinas doesn’t like them. For instance, John of Damascus suggested something like, ‘Knowledge of God is implanted in every man.’ The problem with this and other proofs for God is that they do not reside in knowledge of God himself, but in his effects. In other words, if knowledge of God is implanted in us, it is an effect of God’s existence and not knowledge of God of himself. It is one step removed from direct knowledge, philosophically.
Well, this is all fine and dandy, but why split hairs? I think Gilson’s explanation of Aquinas is a good warning for us and it is quite evident in our world over the past year. Science has become quite a major thing, but interestingly enough, scientists (or government officials) bent the truth in March-May to manipulate the world to preserve masks for health care workers. Of course maybe I’ve drunk someone’s Kool-Aid interpreting the events, but it sort of sounds like they said one thing to preserve N95 masks for health care workers and then changed their tune when they realized cloth masks might help. So what happened? People distrust the medical establishment. Even though there is probably more nuance in the history, I think at least we can grasp the general picture. Perhaps you even have grown to distrust the medical establishment now that they are being less quick to assert things.
Well, Aquinas says, we easily do this in our evangelism and apologetics. We overstate the case to non-Christians. And what is the result? There could only be two results: 1. They reject the whole message because of this bending of the truth, or 2. They endure the lie and realize there is some faith involved in believing in a transcendent God. Put succinctly: you can’t argue someone into becoming a Christian. I’m afraid this is often what happens in so many areas of the church. We overspeak because we want to make a point, convince someone of an error or otherwise, but then at the end of the day, we undermine the very message we herald. So we must take care to speak the truth, speak it in love, with as much clarity as God has given us. And I think this is why it is essential that we not simply speak of our own experience with the gospel (which is good), but we must return and bring others back to the sources. Jesus is the very word of God, he is the light enlightening the darkness, and our words will always pale in comparison to the majestic, inspired, and powerful word of God entrusted to us in the scriptures.
Now this might sound like a daunting task. How in the world are you and I up to such a task. You know some of us speak more in generalities (myself) and some are detail oriented people. Couldn’t we err any way we go? I think the answer is yes, we will err. But we are not empowered by our own selves. Instead, we are humble emissaries of the king. And we are backed by the guaranteed Holy Spirit. Remember God used your parents to raise you: how in the world did you survive and get to be a functionable adult? How will any of your children be sane after living in your home for 18 years? By God’s grace. In a similar manner, God is gracious with our broken and imperfect edges. He is at work powerfully in spite of you and through you. Let the redeemed of the Lord sing, ‘Hallelujah!’ The grace that brought you to the cross will sustain you and work through your very words. And in the end, we can’t make dead men and women alive. Remember the prophet Ezekiel: prophecy over them bones. And those dead bones came to life and the heart of stone is turned to a heart of flesh. Let the redeemed of the Lord sing, ‘Hallelujah!’ and Amen.