Natural Theology, Philosophy, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saints, Scholasticism, Theology, Thomism

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

Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saints, Scholasticism, Theology, Thomism

Catholic Theology & Philosophical Foundations

Saint Thomas Aquinas the Angelic Doctor Background“As we will see, Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Fides et ratio strenuously upholds the tradition of giving priority to faith in the question of the relationship between faith and reason. To do otherwise, of course, would be to flirt with rationalism. Faith, however, must be understood; it is always, to borrow from St. Anselm, “seeking understanding,” What rational tools will one use to understand one’s Christian faith? Of the many philosophies that human culture knows and has known, which one ought to be chosen to aid in the comprehension of faith? Is every philosophy equal to this task?

As is well-known, St. Thomas chose the philosophy of Aristotle for this task. He found that Aristotle’s thought served the faith well; he found, most precisely, that the metaphysics of Aristotle provided a strong foundation upon with to “think the faith.” In light of this, and in light of Pope Leo XIII’s Thomistic revival, theologians began to ask if Catholic theology must be forever wedded to the philosophy of Aristotle. Many said no and attempted to change the philosophical foundations of Catholic theology – none with great success.

The University of Fribourg’s eminent philosopher, I.M. Bochenski, sets the stage for an answer as to why this was so. He explains that modern philosophy, that is, philosophy during the time between 1600 and 1900,

“came into being with the decline of scholastic philosophy. Characteristic of scholasticism is its pluralism (assuming the plurality of really different beings and levels of being), personalism (acknowledging the preeminent value of the human person), its organic conception of reality, as well as its theocentric attitude – God the Creator as its center of vision. Detailed logical analysis of individual problems is characteristic of scholastic method. Modern philosophy opposes every one of these tenets. Its fundamental principles are mechanism, which eliminates the conception of being as integral and hierarchical, and subjectivism, which diverts man from his previous concentration of God and substitutes the subject as the center. In point of method modern philosophy turned its back on formal logic. With some notable exceptions, it was characterized by the development of great systems and by the neglect of analysis.”

The mechanistic and subjectivist a prioris of modern philosophy, along with a whole set of reductionisms in contemporary philosophy, simply do not provide a solid enough grounding for Christian faith.”


– Lucas G. Westman

*Taken From The Sacred Monster of Thomism



Philosophy, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Scholasticism, Theology, Thomism, Traditionalism

The Sacred Monster of Strict-Observance Thomism

RGL PhotoStrict-Observance Thomism

The first chapter of Helen James John’s The Thomist Spectrum is entitled “Garrigou-Lagrange and Strict-Observance Thomism.” She notes that the qualifier “strict-observance” was coined in “a half-joking fashion many years ago, but has now become a standard way of speaking about the Thomism taught in the Roman universities up to the Second Vatican Council”; it is a double-entendre – playing on the strict-observance faction present in many religious orders. In her judgment, St. Pius X’s condemnation of Modernism in Pascendi was the single-most important factor to highlight for the explanation of this type of Thomism because, in its wake, “the reaction against Modernism became the leit-motif for a total interpretation of the thought of St. Thomas.” Garrigou-Lagrange would become the leading proponent of Strict-Observance Thomism; and with the Sacred Congregation for Studies’ publication of its “Decree of Approval of Some Theses Contained in the Doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas and Proposed to the Teachers of Philosophy” on 27 July 1914, this version of Thomism “found a quasi-official formulation.”

To simply a host of issues, Strict-Observance Thomism is at great pains to protect the metaphysical foundations of Catholic theology; part and parcel of this ‘protection’ is a demonstration that the Aristotelian heritage in metaphysics has neither been transcended nor shown to be seriously wanting. In this section, we will examine the philosophical underpinnings of Strict-Observance Thomism; we will see that many of the issues that we explored in reference to Garrigou’s disputes with the philosophes of Henri Bergson and Maurice Blondel will come into clearer focus. Since Strict-Observance Thomism is most interested in combatting Modernism, the following insight is helpful in setting the stage for understanding Garrigou’s passionate engagement with the question:

“The philosophical aspect of Modernism lay in the position that the doctrines of faith must be regarded not as stable truths of the speculative order, but as ‘symbolic’ expressions of man’s religious needs, whose content required radical reformulation to adapt it to the changed circumstances of successive eras of Christianity. The import of this position, which retained the traditional expressions of faith while denying their truth, has been aptly, if flippantly, summed up in the proposition that ‘There is no God and the Blessed Virgin is His Mother.’”

Of utmost importance is that Strict-Observance Thomism holds that the truths of Christian faith are expressions of realities that transcend the religious longings of the human person. These truths are held to have been revealed by God: they are not accounted for by a mere inspection of the workings of the human heart. This point must be insisted upon: Strict-Observance Thomism, while employing what might today strike many as obscure philosophical concepts, places its priority squarely on revelation. There is no equivocation in its doctrine that God has revealed certain truths and that these truths cannot be known apart from the gratuity of divine revelation. While it is true that these truths can be rationally analyzed and can be shown to be ‘reasonable’ and can even be shown to respond to the deepest needs of the human person, they cannot be accounted for without reference to the God who has deigned to reveal them.”


– Lucas G. Westman

*Taken from The Sacred Monster of Thomism, Pg. 119 – 121

Apologetics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Scholasticism, Thomism

Ed Feser on Rejections of the Cosmological Argument

MetaphysicsTaken from Ed Feser’s essay, The New Atheists and the Cosmological Argument:

III.2. Maybe the universe itself (or the Big Bang, or the multiverse, or indeterministic quantum events, or the laws of physics) is the uncaused, self-explanatory, or necessary being: This objection, often concomitant with the first, is raised in various forms by Dawkins, Dennett, Krauss, Rosenberg, and Stenger. And like the first objection, it completely misses the point of each of the versions of the cosmological argument we’ve considered. As we have seen, whatever one thinks of those arguments, there is no arbitrariness or special pleading in their denying that God requires a cause while insisting that everything other than God does. The difference is in each case a principled one. And the principle in each case gives an answer to the question why the universe, the Big Bang, etc. cannot be the terminus of explanation.

For the Aristotelian, any actualization of a potency requires a cause, while what is pure actuality, and only what is pure actuality, does not. But the universe is a mixture of actuality and potentiality, and the Big Bang involved the actualization of a potential, as would each stage in the evolution of a multiverse and each quantum event (indeterminism being irrelevant). The laws of physics are also by themselves merely potential insofar as they could have been other than they are. Hence none of these could be self-explanatory, necessary, or “uncaused” in the relevant sense of being the sort of thing that need not and could not have a cause.

Similarly, for the Neoplatonist neither the universe nor the multiverse could be uncaused, necessary, or self-explanatory, precisely because they are composite. Quantum events and laws of physics also lack the metaphysical simplicity that the Neoplatonist argues we must attribute to the first principle of all. Their contingency is one indication of this, insofar as the fact that they could have been other than they are entails a distinction between essence and existence. Leibniz, of course, would point out that the universe, Big Bang, quantum events, and laws of nature are all contingent rather than necessary and thus could not provide an ultimate explanation; while the defender of the kalam argument would point out that since his claim is precisely that the Big Bang and everything that came into being with it – the universe along with the laws of physics, including the laws of quantum mechanics, that govern it – require a cause, it simply begs the question against him to claim that any of these things might be the terminus of explanation.

Much more could be said. In particular, the metaphysical status of laws of nature is itself so vexed an issue that it is amazing that anyone could think a glib reference to the laws of physics might settle anything in this context. What is a law of nature? How does it have any efficacy? Is a law of nature merely a statement to the effect that such-and-such a regularity exists? In that case it isn’t an explanation of anything but merely a description of the very thing that needs to be explained. Is a law of nature a kind of Platonic entity? In that case we need an account of how the world comes to participate in such a law, and why it participates in the specific laws it does rather than others. And in that case too, laws cannot be ultimate explanations. Is a law of nature a shorthand description of the way a natural substance will tend to behave given its nature or essence? In that case the existence of laws is parasitic on the existences of substances themselves, and again cannot then be an ultimate explanation.

Naturally, the New Atheist might reject any of these views of laws of nature, along with the Aristotelian, Neoplatonic, Leibnizian, or kalam accounts of why the universe cannot be an uncaused cause or self-explanatory or necessary being. The point, however, is that the New Atheist has given no reason whatsoever to reject any of this. Merely to suggest that the universe, Big Bang, etc. might be the terminus explanation is imply to ignore the cosmological argument, not to answer it.


– Lucas G. Westman

Blessed John Duns Scotus, Franciscan Intellectual Tradition, Saint Bonaventure, Scholasticism, Seraphic Orthodoxy, The Franciscans

Saint Bonaventure & Bl. John Duns Scotus

saint-bonaventure-and-blessed-john-duns-scotusGiven my recent investigations into the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition, I have naturally been reading as much literature by and about Saint Bonaventure and Bl. John Duns Scotus as I possibly can. While these two great figures have differing styles of writing and contemplation, I have noticed that the stylistic differences share a common Franciscan unity. My initial hunch has been that Saint Bonaventure, being the first intellectual master of the Franciscan tradition, initiated the process of thematically drawing out the spirituality of Saint Francis by developing a distinctive approach to Franciscan philosophy and theology. The Seraphic Doctor would eventually develop a robust system of thought that in my view, doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves. Blessed John Duns Scotus would later inherit Bonaventure’s legacy, re-formulate it, and eventually become the primary intellectual force within the Franciscan tradition.

Consider this description of Saint Bonaventure’s use of analogy,

“While the notion of analogy is common among Scholastics, it has a unique tonality in Bonaventure who seems to stress the positive side more than the negative. ‘The created world is like a book in which is reflected, represented, and read the Creative trinity.’ While analogy, at one level, is a mode of predication, it is far more than this since our understanding of predication reflects our understanding of what constitutes the real order of things. If all creation springs from the triune God, then in some way creatures must reflect this fact. Bonaventure finds a universe that reflects the Trinitarian God in different degrees, from the most distant resemblance of the vestige to the highest likeness of the similitude. He finds triadic structures at virtually every significant level of concern. If the world, in its depth, is a vast symbol of the divine reality, then analogy is the key to unlocking the meaning of the universe. And for those who learn to read the analogies, the world becomes a path or a ladder that leads back to God.”[1]

Later, when discussing the hierarchical nature of Bonaventurian themes, a similar conceptual understanding of analogy associated with God’s relation to the created order can be identified,

“The levels of the hierarchy are not merely superimposed layers with no significant relation to one another. On the contrary, there are lines of interaction between the various degrees of hierarchies. There is a chain of mediation in which the higher members of the hierarchy pass on influences to those members immediately below them. Guardini compares the entire structure to a system of canals through which a common vital power streams. While the beings of the hierarchy have a mediating role to play in reference to one another, it is the influence of God that streams forth through the channels of this vast, living, organism, reaching into all areas of the spiritual life and brining forth the higher degrees of God-likeness in creatures.”[2]

In my view, these paragraphs describing Bonaventure’s views on analogy and God’s relation to the created order are entirely in line with the classical theistic tradition of the Catholic Church. And rather than abandoning the lead of the Seraphic Doctor, Scotus, the Subtle Doctor, will eventually draw out of these Bonaventurian themes a system of his own while staying true to the Franciscan heritage initiated by the spirituality of Saint Francis, the Seraphic Father of the order. To be sure, there are important philosophical differences between Bonaventure and Scotus, but the Franciscan charism motivating their work unifies the spirit of their systems.

Far from being a proto-modernist, the gifted Scotus advances the tradition inherited from the Franciscan forefathers,

“Bonaventure died in 1274, was canonized in 1482, and made a primary Doctor of the Church in 1588. He was succeeded in the chair of theology at Paris by Gilbert of Tournai, Walter of Bruges, John Pecham, Matthew of Aquasparta, and Richard of Middleton. Marcil points out that the thirteenth century theologians kept an independent style, but generally followed the Bonaventurian lead while departing on some points. Marcil has in mind Peter of Olivi and John Duns Scotus. But for the purposes of the narrative on Scotus, the caveat is that Scotus’ style may only appear to be more arid, and a digression from Bonaventure. Therefore, the critical question is: is Scotus’ thought a digression or a fuller explanation of what Bonaventure began? Upon close examination, Scotus does not represent a substantial change in approach to the nature of philosophy and theology. Rather, it can be argued that he gives a more rigorous analysis.”[3]

I am finding that my independent investigations support the contextual claims of the above paragraph. The unity of the Franciscan spiritual heritage allows a both/and approach to the systems of Bonaventure and Scotus.

The Newman-Scotus Reader provides this summary of the foundational elements of the Franciscan tradition (Pg. 77, 78):

There are four very important points that will be developed in the chapters ahead. They center on the Franciscan thesis which originates in St. Francis himself. It is the theory about the nature of the predestination of Jesus and Mary. Jointly they are prior to anything else willed by God for existence and not conditioned on the sin of Adam and Eve, a priority that is at the root of any possibility of redemption after sin. Exemplary causality includes their mediatory influence in the world, not only after sin, but before, in the human and angelic orders…

  1. First, familiarity with Scotus’ life, works, and some of his forerunners confirms the place of Scripture, Tradition, the Fathers of the Church, especially the Alexandrine School, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, John of Damascene, the Victorines, and Anselm.
  2. Second, the Scotistic School is inseparable from the overall context of what is called the Franciscan School. Francis of Assisi wanted educated friars who did their theology on their knees. He was not a tenured theologian, but, in this sense, no less a theologian.
  3. Third, from this vantage point, there is no split between Bonaventure and Scotus, but rather a more exact mode of defining by Scotus that anticipates the future objections of Kant, and, anticipates the overall outline of chapter 8 of Lumen Gentium at Vatican II.
  4. Fourth, the thought of William of Ockham (d.1347) is often presumed to be the next generation in continuity after Scotus’ thought, but Ockham’s nominalism is more closely associated with agnosticism that fails to have scholarly verifiable purchase in Catholic philosophy.


UPDATE: During the scholastic era, one of the important areas of discussion concerned Augustinian illuminationism and the Aristotelian theory of cognition. Saint Bonaventure argued in favor of the Augustinian position. Saint Thomas’s view was a sort of middle ground between the two theories. Some scholars claim that Saint Thomas abandoned illuminationism, but I do not think that is the case. Aquinas is more Augustinian than some may be willing to admit. Blessed John Duns Scotus, however, ended up siding entirely with the Aristotelian theory, and eventually moves beyond Aristotle. Scotus argues that if the Aristotelian theory of cognition is adopted, an adjustment is required in the area of our understanding of being, that is, analogy of being would not be sufficient to derive concepts of God from the created order, at least without divine illumination. This is a primary reason why Scotus developed his theory of univocity of being, which gets you the benefits of illuminationism without some of the epistemic baggage, at least according to Scotus. And contrary to his critics, Scotus does not abandon analogy. He tries to show that if analogy is possible, univocity is always present in the schematic of being. As interesting as Scotus’s move might be, I find myself siding with the “old school” emphasis on analogy, participation, and illumination.


– Lucas G. Westman

[1] The Hidden Center: Spirituality and Speculative Christology in St. Bonaventure, Hayes, Pg. 15

[2] Ibid, Pg. 17

[3] The Newman-Scotus Reader: Contexts and Commonalities, Ondrako, Pg. 77

Augustinian Intellectual Tradition, Perfect Being Theology, Philosophy, Saint Anselm, Scholasticism

Anselm’s Ontological Argument

Saint AnselmSaint Anselm’s ontological argument:

“Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which nothing greater can be conceived. But obviously, this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.”

Descartes’s ontological argument:

“But from the fact that I cannot think of God except as existing, it follows that existence is inseparable from God, and that for this reason he really exists. Not that my thought brings this about or imposes any necessity on anything; but rather the necessity of the thing itself, namely of the existence of God, forces me to think this. For I am not free to think of God without existence, that is, a supremely perfect being without a supreme perfection…”

The ontological argument for the existence of God is one that is rarely loved, let alone even liked, and is most often maligned as religiously motivated sophistry.

I have always been intrigued by the ontological argument. And I must admit, contrary to many detractors, I find it to be convincing. Maybe, if I am completely honest, my favorable disposition for the ontological argument is based, quite heavily, on the fact that it is controversial. The premises of the argument are are completely loaded; Anselm makes the argument from the context of a faith already accepted, the argument posits the absolute supremacy of God, it is couched within the context of ‘perfect being’ theological methodology, the argument utterly ignores the culturally engrained modern notion of empirical verification, and champions the a priori over the a posteriori, which is anathema in our scientific age.

Indeed, what are often considered deficiencies of the argument, I consider its strengths. If a naturalist opponent were going to be honest about the context of their arguments, for better or for worse, they too have loaded premises. The arguments are made within the context of an epistemological scientism already accepted rather than critically examined, they posit the supremacy of the scientific method over that of revealed truths, they utterly ignore the a priori rational foundation of which their strict empiricism rests, all while explicitly mistaking method for metaphysics.

Saint Anselm’s ontological argument is found within the context of a prayer – faith seeking understanding. The naturalist’s argument is found within the context of a denial of prayer – faith seeking scientific verification.


– Lucas G. Westman