Natural Theology & the Thomistic Synthesis

RGL on Thomism

Natural Theology

That which is, is more than that which can be, more than that which is on the road to be. This principle led Aristotle and Aquinas to find, at the summit of all reality, pure act, understanding of understanding, sovereign and good. But Aquinas rises above Aristotle and Leibnitz, for whom the world is a necessary consequence of God. St. Thomas shows, on the contrary, the reason why we must say with revelation that God is sovereignly free, to create or not to create, to create in time rather than from eternity. The reason lies in God’s infinite plenitude of being, truth, and goodness, which creatures can do noting to increase. After creation, there are more beings, it is true, but not more being, not more perfection, wisdom, or love. “God is none the greater for having created the universe.” God alone, He who is, can say, not merely “I have being, truth, and life,” but rather “I am being itself, truth itself, life itself.”

Hence the supreme truth of Christian philosophy is this: In God alone is essence identified with existence. The creature is only a capability to exist, it is created and preserved by Him who is. Further, the creature, not being its own existence, is not its own action, and cannot pass from potency to act, either in the order of nature or in that of grace, except by divine causality.

We have thus shown how Thomism is an elevated synthesis, which, while it rejects unfounded denials, assimilates the positive tendencies of current philosophical and theological conceptions. This synthesis recognizes that reality itself is incomparably more rich than our ideas of that reality. In a word, Thomism is characterized by a sense of mystery, which is the source of contemplation. God’s truth, beauty, and holiness are continually recognized as transcending all philosophy, theology, and mysticism, as uncreated richness to be attained only by the beatific vision, and even under that vision, however clearly understood, as something which only God Himself can comprehend in all its infinite fullness. Thomism thus keeps ever awake our natural, conditional, and inefficacious desire to see God as He is. Thus we grow in appreciation of the gifts of grace and charity, which move us, efficaciously, to desire and to merit the divine vision.

This power of assimilation is therefore a genuine criterion whereby to appraise the validity and scope of Thomism, from the lowest material elements up to God’s own inner life. Economy demands that any system have one mother-idea, as radiating center. The mother-idea of Thomism is that of God as pure act, in whom alone is essence identified with existence. This principle, the keystone of Christian philosophy, enables us to explain, as far as can be done here below, what revelation teaches of the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the unity of existence in the three divine persons, the unity of existence in Christ. It explains likewise the mystery of grace. All that is good in our free acts comes from God as first cause, just as it comes from us as second causes. And when we freely obey, when we accept rather than resist grace, all that is good in that act comes from the source of all good. Nothing escapes that divine and universal cause, who without violence actualizes human freedom, just as connaturally as He actualizes the tree to bloom and bear fruit.

Let Thomism then be judged by its principles, necessary and universal, all subordinated to one keystone principle, not a restricted principle as is that of human freedom, but by the uncreated principle of Him who is, on whom everything depends, in the order of being and activity, in the order of grace and nature. This is the system which, in the judgment of the Church, most nearly approaches the ideal of theology, the supreme branch of knowledge.

– Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought


– Lucas G. Westman

9 thoughts on “Natural Theology & the Thomistic Synthesis

  1. Lucas, these texts are very valuable examples of their genre, but you do not take a stance or adopt an interpretation of most of them. They do not speak with one voice, and are not easily harmonized. Is the central truth of Christianity that in God, existence and essence are equivalent? A Franciscan might suggest, “God is Love”; or perhaps, “Life is essentially Good”, as a candidate central affirmation. Certainly the Thomist perspective developed from GL’s central truth is not compatible with the Franciscan perspective from the eternal primacy of Christ. The former provides a detailed natural theology; the latter may not offer one at all.
    Rather than gathering its forces around some non-existent Thomist Golden Age, the Church should have attempted a self-conscious reassessment of both the genuine challenges which post-Renaissance philosophy provided (and to which its writers responded); and of the rationalism and idealism which had deeply invaded Catholic thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A scholarly study of the developments of the late nineteenth century is provided in the volume, “Spheres of Philosophical Inquiry and the Historiography of Medieval Philosophy”, by John Inglis.
    The formulations of Neo-Thomists, because of their inadequacy, lead directly to the disintegration of Catholic thought into existential Thomism; transcendental Thomism; and French Neo-Platonism. The young Jesuit Heidegger rebels against the rationalism of the Neo-Thomists, and in his historical lectures of the late 1930’s will offer a valuable perspective for those of us interested in synthesis and reconstruction. In his valuable book, “In Postmodernity’s Transcending: Devaluing God,” Laurence Paul Hemming offers a critique of Catholic rationalism in recent centuries, and a call to Catholic intellectuals to address the very real questions posed by Modernist and Post-Modernist philosophers. This is, of course, not the work of a “reformer”, but of an honest, deeply Catholic, philosopher. I mention these sources as possibly useful background for discussions on prospects for Catholic philosophy in the twenty first century, if people are interested in pursuing the many deep questions to which such a discussion must play heir.

    Jim Given


  2. Jim,

    It seems that you may be interacting with a narrative you preemptively disapprove of and not the content of this post. For example, the quotation does not say the supreme truth of Christianity is that essence and existence are equivalent in God, but that in Christian philosophy, these two are identified in God alone as pure act. As far as philosophy is concerned, that is an important argument.

    I am not sure if you are saying that in the Franciscan tradition there is no detailed natural theology, because that would be incorrect given the fact that Scotus’s natural theology is quite detailed indeed.

    As far as your second paragraph goes, I strongly disagree with the grand narrative being presented. But rather than go into detail here, I hope to do an article on the topic because what is being presented is a bias against Neo-scholasticism that has been popular leading up to Vatican II, and definitely following its completion.


  3. The actual quote does not say “central”; that is correct. It says “supreme”:
    “Hence the supreme truth of Christian philosophy is this: In God alone is essence identified with existence.”

    As I have probably described before, I am extremely committed to the effort to reconstruct Catholic philosophy along principles that build on the rich harvest of late Scholastic metaphysics. But this is a vast enterprise. Thomism, despite what its loyalists say, is badly splintered. There is no *canonical* version of Thomism. Thomist-Scotist synthesis is almost complete anathema to philosophers that are available in English translation. I have a (small) collection of every book I can find that addresses such synthesis in interesting ways.

    Maybe the narrative I present is wrong. Maybe Neo-Thomism is more philosophically sophisticated than my narrative claims. It would be very important to me if you (and others) were interested in discussing these topics. I will be happy to play devil’s advocate and defend the narrative I offer.

    Jim Given

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am definitely interested in having this discussion with you. I am also interested in the books you have addressing a Thomist-Scotist synthesis.

      I would also maintain that Neo-Thomism is more sophisticated than most of its critics let on. But that is a conversation for a later date.


  4. Lucas,
    My initial claim in the last email should have been simply that my initial quote was in fact a quote. The axiomatic deductive approach of many Neo-Thomists manuals seems to me quite consistent with that quote. I can accept the quote as Aristotelian, but cannot reconcile it with a God who loves us and suffers with us.
    – Jim

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you might be critiquing the essence/existence identification as a theological statement when it is a philosophical statement, at least within the context of the originally quoted passage. Even Saint Bonaventure and Bl. John Duns Scotus, when doing philosophy and natural theology, point to God as the First Principle. If I were to critique this “First Principle” by saying that it cannot be reconciled with a God who loves us and suffers with us, I would be aiming at the wrong target.


  5. Lucas,
    I think the identity of essence and existence in particular, and the act-potency duality in general make a poor starting point in Aristotle for the explication of the Christian God. A classical substance has its act of being delimited by its essence. The Christian God is unbounded love, defined by its overflow of its own limitations; defined by an essentially Christian superabundance of being. This is also explained as a kenotic self-emptying. God’s fist act in creating the Universe is to define a void, a domain of being; a space; not part of God. Consider – it is a wonder that pantheism is wrong as a description of the all-powerful God.
    An adequate Christian metaphysics must account for this self-negation in God in a non-mystical and non-Hegelian manner. God’s being within the eternal Now shapes each moment of the life of the Universe. Yet God can be surprised by his own Creation, because He can and does allow this to happen. An adequate Christian metaphysics must allow genuine human freedom, in the sense of synchronic contingency. It must also allow essentially novel physical occurrence in the evolution of physical law and natural structure. The latter claim causes tension with the concept of divine ideas, in the sense of a comprehensive, pre-ordained set of physical possibilities and structures, each of which is *already* defined in the mind of God.

    I believe that one can develop an Aristotelian metaphysics that allows for these facts, but that it is very difficult


  6. Yet God can be surprised by his ain innovation, because He can and does appropriate this to hap. God’s fist act in creating the creation is to delimit a void, a land of being; a quad; not part of God. study – it is a wonder that pantheism is haywire as a description of the all-powerful God.
    An adequate Christian metaphysics must story for this self-negation in God in a non-mystical and non-Hegelian personal manner.


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