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Doubting Thomas (Aquinas)

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June 26, 2014 Tags: Biblical Interpretation, Divine Action & Purpose, Earth, Universe & Time, Science as Christian Calling
Doubting Thomas (Aquinas)

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. You can read more about what we believe here.

The greatest Christian theologian of the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas, as painted (not from life) by Joos van Wassenhove and Pedro Berruguete (c. 1475), Louvre, Paris.

I began this series by introducing Ted Peters and the important theologian under whom he studied, the late Langdon Gilkey. In that opening excerpt, Peters took exception to Gilkey’s “two-language theory” of science and religion, suggesting that a “consonance” model was not only preferable in itself but also more suitable to understanding how Christian theology relates to modern cosmology.

In today’s excerpt, Peters challenges Gilkey once more. This time, the topic is Thomas Aquinas’ theology of creation, which Gilkey criticized in his famous book, Maker of Heaven and Earth, a very influential study of the Christian doctrine of creation that was published in 1959, the year of the Darwin centennial. In the mid-thirteenth century, when the works of Aristotle dominated the university curriculum, Thomas carefully crafted a synthesis between Christian theology and Aristotelian philosophy in his Summa Theologica (“The Summary of Theology”), a magisterial work of scholarship even though intended as an introduction for students. Despite his great reliance on Aristotelian ideas, Thomas dissented from Aristotle’s dogma that the world is eternal and uncreated: the Bible teaches that the world had a beginning, and this trumps Aristotle. Gilkey’s doubts about Thomas’ conclusion were based in his “two-language” theory. For Gilkey, theology simply doesn’t ask “how” questions, such as “how did the universe begin?” It can ask only “why” questions, such as “why does the universe exist?”

To a significant degree, I think Gilkey was right—not specifically in this instance about Thomas, but about the general situation. We don’t rely on theology to tell us how rocks fall to earth, and we shouldn’t. Nor do we rely on science to tell us why the universe exists; if we did, we wouldn’t get a very deep or interesting answer. Concerning Thomas on creation, however, Peters doubts the basis for Gilkey’s doubt—and so do I. The next words you read are his.

Creation and Change

Christian thinking has not always distinguished between creation from nothing and continuing creation in quite the same way we do today. The prevalent distinction has been that between creation and change. For Thomas Aquinas it was important to make the distinction between absolute creation and changing things which have already been created. In fact, [for Thomas] the term “creation” refers solely to what appears ab initio [from the beginning], to God’s bringing things into being from nothing. “Creation is not change,” he writes, because “change means that the same something should be different now from what it was previously”. God’s role as creator, then, was that of the first cause. If we were to translate Thomas directly into the present context of the Big Bang, we might say that God caused the singularity to explode, but only after creating the singularity itself, of course.

Thomas believes in a point of origin because it is biblical. For this reason he rejects two competing positions, those of Aristotle and Bonaventure. On the one hand, Aristotle held that the cosmos is eternal and argued for it on philosophical grounds. While granting to Aristotle the credibility of his philosophical arguments, Thomas affirms a point of origin and a finite time to the world on scriptural grounds. One could, in principle, hold to creatio ex nihilo while affirming either an eternal cosmos or a temporally finite cosmos and remain philosophically coherent. Nevertheless, special revelation decides the issue for Thomas.

Portrait painting
Claude François, Saint Bonaventure (1655), National Gallery of Canada

On the other hand, Bonaventure favored the idea of an initial origin and argued for it on philosophical grounds. Thomas agrees with Bonaventure’s conclusion but disagrees with his method. For Thomas, the metaphysical arguments alone cannot settle the issue as to whether the world is eternal or temporally finite. He seems to assume that the biblical position is consonant with what he knows philosophically, but it is the biblical commitment itself which is decisive. The result is a doctrine of creatio ex nihilo with the [following] specific meaning: the cosmos has a point of initial origin.

For Thomas, God transcends the cosmos. As the uncaused cause, the cosmos is originally dependent upon God; yet God is not just one factor among others within the world system. The world process is itself a dynamic process in that it involves change, but in itself it does not create new things out of nothing. No created thing can create something absolutely. Only God can, and God did it already back at the beginning.

Langdon Gilkey criticizes Thomas for using the idea of cause in making the case for God. Gilkey believes the causal analogy for describing God’s relation to the world is misleading for two reasons. First, it separates God from the world. Causality implies external relations. If God is the first cause and the world is his dependent effect, then God and world are set over against one another and God’s immanence is denied. Second, Gilkey says Thomas compromises the transcendence of God by drawing him into the world system. God has become one more factor in the endless chain of cause and effect. Once we have placed God in the causal chain, there is no escape from the inevitable question: what caused God? Thus, the analogy drawn from the spacetime experience of cause and effect, when applied to the eternal divine, is a mistake. [Peters cites Maker of Heaven and Earth, p. 70, adding that physicist Paul Davies makes the same point in his book, God and the New Physics, pp. 33-40. “The answer,” says Peters, “is that God is transcendent to the world of cause and effect; and, though involved in the world, God is not determined by the world of cause and effect.”]

On the one hand, if God for Thomas transcends the world, then Gilkey faults Thomas for loss of immanence. On the other, if God for Thomas is a factor in the intracosmic process, then he is faulted for loss of transcendence. Why does Gilkey press this point? The answer is that Gilkey’s own agenda is to avoid mixing science and religion. Gilkey says it is the task of science to answer the “how?” questions, such as “how did the cosmos begin?” It is the task of theology to answer the “why?” questions, such as “why did God create?” Gilkey’s complaint against Thomas is that he sought to answer the “how?” question by saying that God had “caused” the world to come into being.

If we were to follow the path led by [Ian] Barbour and Gilkey, we might end up making no definitive theological commitments whatsoever regarding whether the cosmos ever had an initial origin, or, if it did, just how God was involved in this origin. We would have to carry on our theological discussion in a field of discourse that would be fenced off from scientific speculations on origin and change in nature. Yet, as we shall see, few theologians in our time— including Barbour and Gilkey—in practice hold to keeping the fence very high. To illustrate, we will examine the widely accepted theological postulate that God’s relationship to the world is best described in terms of creatio continua.

Looking Ahead

You’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to see what Peters has to say about that fence. That’s when this series concludes with Peters’ ringing affirmation that creation is “a whole course of natural and historical events in which new things happen every day, a course of events which is bound by its finite future. The end of the cosmos will be something new too.” Be sure to join us once more then.

References and Credits

Excerpts from Ted Peters, “On Creating the Cosmos,” in Physics, Philosophy and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding (1988), ed. Robert John Russell, William R. Stoeger, S.J., and George V. Coyne, S.J., copyright Vatican Observatory Foundation, are reproduced by kind permission of Ted Peters and Vatican Observatory Foundation. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

Editorial Policy

Most of the editing for these excerpts from Ted Peters involves removing the odd sentence or two, or in some cases entire paragraphs—which I indicate by putting [SNIP] or an ellipsis at the appropriate point(s). I also insert annotations where warranted [enclosed in square brackets] to provide background information, often citing information from Peters’ own footnotes when it’s important for our readers.

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

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Jon Garvey - #85886

June 26th 2014

Thanks for this extract from Peters, Ted. My initial reaction is that Peters treats Aquinas fairly, and Gilkey does not.

Specifically, in his complaint about lack of immanence, Gilkey seems to ignore all that Aquinas carefully covers about God’s ongoing concurrent relationship with every event, the necessity of God’s activity in that category called “change”, and the detailed treatment of special providence in relation to all lawlike, chance and willed events. In Aquinas, nothing whatsoever, great or small, is outside God’s providential immanence - the only way he could be more involved is pantheistically.

On the complaint about lack of transcendence, the “Who made God, then?” question, he appears to have ignored the whole thrust of Thomas’s treatment of causality, which is specifically aimed at proving that the First cause, by his nature, *must* be uncaused.

These things are not hidden esoteria in Aquinas’ work, but the kind of thing that’s crystal clear even from dipping into the *Summa* and “Contra Gentiles* as superficially as I have.

Ted Peters shouldn’t really have had to point out such things in an academic landscape. So it does seem that we need to look at Gilkey’s motives, and that the desire to dichotomize science and religion trumped the fair treatment of sources. Presumably in the years between Gilkey’s 1959 publication and Peters’, many scholars found Gilkey’s arguments quite acceptable - which is maybe a worrying demonstration of the primacy of worldview in theories of all kinds.

Eddie - #85900

June 27th 2014

Hi, Ted.

I agree with Jon.  Gilkey’s account, at least as presented here, seems deeply flawed, and governed by an external motivation (i.e., to prevent science/religion conflict) when it should be motivated by the desire to understand Aquinas.

Thanks for showing us this, Ted.  Gilkey was for a time one of the most celebrated Protestant theologians in America.  It is therefore good to learn how careless he could sometimes be.  My hat is off to Peters for his analysis and critique.

Dave_A - #85901

June 27th 2014

I agree with the two preceding comments. The attempt to find a conflict between causality and immanence is a thin argument indeed. If one argued that the laws that govern the operation of a watchmaker are limited to the laws that govern the operation of his watch (in the narrow sense of obeying the laws of physics as “locally” understood), one oughtn’t presume that the watchmaker never had a another thought or made anything other than watches, for example. Pantheism is certainly the term for insisting that God’s character supervene upon the rules of the natural world, although there is no impetus here to devolve to it.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85905

June 28th 2014

The pro0bloem of the Trancendence and the Immanence of God is an old one, but still very important.  One might say that conservatives emphasize the God’s Transcendence while liberals emphasize God’s Immanence. 

Thomas clearly believes in both the Transcendence and Immanence of God, so Gilkey was wrong to criticize him for that, but the issue goes deeper than that.  If God is Simple as many think, God must be one or the other, Transcendent or Immanent.  If God is both as with a dualist position, that is better, but it seems that God is fractured.

The best answer to this issue imho is the Trinitarian view which none of these people uses.  That is, God the Creator best reveals the Transcendence of God, while God the Logos best reveals the Immanence of God, and God the Spirit best reveals how God works as both Transcendent and Immanent. 

Thus God is the Complex One, both One and Three, in God work and revelation of Godself in this world.  Thus the Trinity is not just a doctrine of the Church, but it is God Self-Revelation as God relates to us and God’s universe. 

In ancient times people were not aware of the age and history of the earth and universe.  If the universe were eternal, logically it would be without change as Aristotle and others thought it to be. 

Now, thanks to Copernicus and Galileo, we know different, so it does not make sense to say that God could have created an eternal universe, except that God can do anything Gods choses to do.  The fact is God did not chose to create an eternal universe, which would be a universe without life.         

Tony - #85906

June 29th 2014

Hi Ted…

Thank you for your continuing effort in bringing us these wonderful insights from the great thinkers of the past and our present time.  Although, I must insist, the member’s comments are missing the point.  The point is that Peters and Gilkey are trying to raise speculation concerning the eternal/finite structure of the cosmos.

Peters writes, “God’s role as creator, then, was that of the first cause.  If we were to translate Thomas directly into the present context of the Big Bang, we might say that God caused the singularity to explode, but only after creating the singularity itself, of course.”

How does God create the singularity?  From the existing mass of the previous universe, of course.  Having unergone heat death and entropy, God re-gathers the mass/energy of the previous universe - the mass/energy is brought together to the critical point causing the singularity to explode.

Here, Peters states, “Thomas believes in a point of origin because it is biblical.  For this reason he rejects two competing positions, those of Aristotle and Bonaventure.  On the one hand, Aristotle held that the cosmos is eternal and argued for it on philosophical grounds.  While granting to Aristotle the credibility of his philosophical arguments, Thomas affirms a point of origin and a finite time to the world on scriptural grounds.  One could, in principle, hold to creatio ex nihilo [remember, the *nothing* of creatio ex nihilo can also imply *newness*] while affirming either an eternal cosmos or a temporally finite cosmos and remain philosophically coherent.”

Do you get the point Peters makes?  We can, in principle, hold to a finite universe and at the same time affirm to an eternal cosmos.  How is this possible?  With the concept of a  cyclical universe, of course!  The cyclical [Big Bang/Big Crunch] of universes implies *eternal* while each successive universe implies *finitude*.

Accordingly, “For Thomas, God transcends the cosmos.  As the uncaused cause, the cosmos is originally dependent upon God; yet God is not just one factor among others within the world system.  The world process is itself a dynamic process in that it involves change, but in itself it does not create new things out of nothing.  No created thing can create something absolutely.  Only God can, and God did it already back at the beginning.”  Hence, God remains the [first cause] of each successive universe and also remains the [uncaused cause] of eternal existence.

Furthermore, Langdon Gilkey’s critique of Thomas is justified in the sense that Thomas rejects the two [competing] positions of an eternal and finite cosmos - when in logical fact they are [consonant] positions of the eternal and finite nature of the cosmos.  I believe it is for this reason Gilkey pressed the point of transcendence and immanence.  On another note, where Peters states that, “The answer is that Gilkey’s own agenda is to avoid mixing science and religion,” in knowing that “Pandora’s Box” would be opened.  The time was not right!  Also, if theology is to answer only the “why” questions, I can understand Gilkey’s offence in Thomas answering a “how” question.  Alternatively, philosophy can answer either of these questions because it trumps both - the fields of science and theology.  Which is why I have stated elsewhere that “in my model, theology is a branch of philosophy - nevertheless an important branch.”  Philosophy is the king of the disciplines, sets the standards for discussion, and, uses the sciences as its tool to acquire its knowledge base.

Finally, “Panentheism is a belief system which posits that God exists and interpenetrates every part of nature, and timelessly extends beyond as well.  Panentheism is distinguished from pantheism, which holds that God is synonymous with the material universe.  In panentheism, God is not exactly viewed as the creator or demiurge but the eternal animating force behind the universe, with the universe as nothing more than the manifest part of God.  The cosmos exists within God, who in turn “pervades” or is “in” the cosmos.  While pantheism asserts that God and the universe are coextensive, panentheism claims that God is greater than the universe and that the universe is contained within God.  Panentheism holds that God is the “supreme affect and effect” of the universe.”  http://www.reference.com/browse/wiki/Panentheism

Panentheism, as a belief system, is in full agreement with the cosmological model of the cyclical universe.  Moreover, this understanding, in connection with the Christian belief of an Eternal God and of the beginning of Creation also sits well as an overall philosophy of this worldview and truth.  The second coming of Christ is what will nail shut - once and for all - the coffin of all false belief systems.

Thus, I agree with where, “[Peters cites Maker of Heaven and Earth, p. 70, adding that physicist Paul Davies makes the same point in his book, God and the New physics, pp. 33-40.  “The answer,”  says Peters, “is that God is transcendent to the world of cause and effect; and, though involved in the world, God is not determined by the world of cause and effect.”]

GJDS - #85909

June 30th 2014

The doctrine of creation from nothing goes back to the early Christian teachings, and was discussed by, amongst others, Athanasius – the doctrine cannot be correctly understood without discussing creation by the Word – thus it is the power of God’s Word that created, creates, and sustains. This removes the odd notion of some sort of field or energy permeating the Universe – the Word is a thoroughly different notion of authority that derives meaning solely from scripture.

Athanasius (Post Nicene writings 4th Century) makes the case ‘from nothing’ (amongst other reasons), to show that we come from nothing (as for all of the creation) and will end there, to be replace by the new heaven and new earth. The doctrine also includes, “...whereas we have by God’s grace noted somewhat also of the divinity of the Word of the Father, and of His universal Providence and power, and that the Good Father through Him orders all things, and all things are moved by Him, and in Him are quickened:

And “...but that out of nothing, and without its having any previous existence, God made the universe to exist through His word,..”

The central point is that all was created through His Word – so speaking of causality even if we claim the primal cause as God, makes the discussion enter the philosophical instead of theological. Athanasius considered the prevailing pagan views of his day:

For some say that all things have come into being of themselves, and in a chance fashion; as, for example, the Epicureans, who tell us in their self-contempt, that universal providence does not exist,...”

“... others, including Plato,.... argue that God has made the world out of matter previously existing and without beginning. For God could have made nothing had not the material existed already; just as the wood must exist ready at hand for the carpenter,..... God will be on their theory a Mechanic only, and not a Creator out of nothing

Athanasius goes on to show that the creation doctrine is understood with respect to origins and also purpose, “what possible reason, having proposed to speak of the Incarnation of the Word, we are at present treating of the origin of mankind. But this, too, properly belongs to the aim of our treatise.  For in speaking of the appearance of the Saviour amongst us, we must needs speak also of the origin of men, that you may know that the reason of His coming down was because of us, and that our transgression”.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85912

June 30th 2014


We meet again.  Panentheism is an interesting way to try to reconcile the Transcendence and Immanence of God.  I remember considering it when J.A.T. Robinson was writing about it. 

However panentheism falls short because it does not allow for the fact of sin and salvation in this world.  As GJDS clearly pointed out above, this is the reason that the great African theologian rightly rejected this point of view. 

I pointed out this problem to you before but you did not respond. 

A key issue is Whether there was a Beginning or not?  The Bible, OT and NT, says yes.  Philosophy says no.  You seem to think that science says no. 

While it is clear to me that some important scientific would like to prove that time is cyclical, that is not what the evidence indicates. 

The evidence shows that the universe had a beginning.  The evidence shows that the universe is expanding. 

There are three alternatives to what might happen from where we are. 

1) The universe might continue to expand until it disintegrate, or

2) it might stop expanding and become stable, or

3) it might contract to the point it becomes nothing again, or

4) it might contract down to nothing and then expand again. 

Only the last alternative would fit your point of view.  This is not based on science, but speculation based upon a particular philosophical point of view.    

The most important problem with this view is that it is anti-science and not Christian.  I agree with Stan Jaki that the philosophical cyclical view of time was a major road block to the development of science and only after this road block was overcome by Galileo and Copernicus could the Biblical linear view of time prevail and modern science take form.

You are consistent in placing philosophy over theology (Christianity).  I think that your method and result are best described Syncretism and not Christianity.  

The monistic view provides for continuity, but not for change.  The dualistic view provides for change, but not continuity.  Only the triune view provides for both continuty and change. 

Tony - #85930

July 2nd 2014

Hi Roger, how are you? I hope all is well.

I don’t understand why you don’t see my point, it is clear enough and has been discussed under numerous comments.  You write; “the bible states that there was a beginning but philosophy states that the universe is eternal.”  My point is that the concept of the cyclical universe emplies [both] the [beginning] and [ending] of the universe, and an [eternal] cycle of successive universes.  This means that [both] the bible teaching of a [beginning] of creation and the philosophical teaching of [eternity] are correct - your reference to syncretism.  Again, both [beginning] and [eternal] are correct.  Christian theology teaches that God is [eternal] and that there was a [beginning] to creation.  The doctrine of the cyclical universe teaches that the [eternal animating force] of successive cycles of universes is [eternal] and that there was a [beginning] to the creation of the universe. 

In my belief system God is the [eternal animating force] expressed by the teaching of Panentheism, and the concept of the cyclical universe accounts for the [beginning] or creation of the universe as related by the bible and the Big Bang as expressed by science.  This belief system teaches that [God] the [eternal animating force] created all life on earth through a miraculous event in the distant past, that man and woman evolved into cognitive, rational, intelligent beings and that God abides within them as the higher-self.  It also accounts for the fact of sin and salvation through Jesus Christ for the so-called fall of man - the trial an error learning process of life experience.  This belief system is 100% [pure] Judeo-Christian - all false teachings removed.

The reason the concept of the cyclical universe is not a scientific point of view is because science must function according to the principle of a beginning.  The speculation of the cyclical universe as a philosophical point of view rests on the basis of antinomy.  Wikipedia explains this well on account of Kant:

“The term antinomy acquired a special significance in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who used it to describe the equally rational but contradictory results of applying to the universe of pure thought the categories of criteria of reason that are proper to the universe of sensible perception or experience (phenomena).  Empirical reason cannot here play the role of establishing rational truths because it goes beyond possible experience and is applied to the sphere of that which transcends it.

In each antinomy, a thesis is contradicted by an antithesis.  For example: Kant proves the thesis that time must have a beginning by showing that if time had no beginning, then an infinity would have elapsed up until the present moment.  This is a manifest contradiction because infinity cannot, by definition, be completed by “successive synthesis” - yet just such a finalizing synthesis would be required by the view that time is infinite; so the thesis is proven.  Then he proves the antithesis, that time has no beginning, by showing that if time had a beginning, then there must have been “empty time” out of which time arose.  This is incoherent (for Kant) for the following reason: Since, necessarily, no time elapses in this pretemporal void, then there could be no alteration, and therefore nothing (including time) would ever come to be: so the antithesis is proven.  Reason makes equal claim to each proof, since they are both correct, so the question of the limits of time must be regarded as meaningless.”

The process of antinomy necessarily provides logical reason that we live in a cyclical universe.  Since thesis and antithesis are proven concerning time having a beginning and time having no beginning the only logical conclusion is that we live in a cyclical universe.

Be well

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85934

July 3rd 2014


Thank you for your response.  It is most helpful in understanding where you are coming from, which is philosophy and not Christianity.

However philosophy is based on ideas, rather than facts or revelation.  Science is based on facts, rather than ideas or revelation.  Theology is based on revelation, rather than fact or ideas. 

However to have a complete comprehensive world view we need a world view that reconciles philosophy, science, and theology.  In other words we need a world view that brings together and reconciles facts, ideas, and revelation. 

While I would give you and Kant an E for effort, your effort to bring theology and science together under philosophical dualism does not work.

Kant and Newton understood time and space as absolute.  If that were the case, then it would be reasonable to think that time does not have a beginning or an ending. 

However Einstein demonstrated that time and space are not absolute, but relational.  When the Big Bang theory was verified by the discovery of background radiation, this confirmed scientifically how this most likely took place.  Time and space are not absolute, not eternal, but are the product of the creation of the the universe.

This understanding of time and space are fully in agreement with the theological Christian view expressed by Augustine, which is there was no time or space before the Beginning, only God. 

In this way relational theology brings the facts of science together with the revelation of theology.  It is working to bring the ideas of philosophy into the 21st century, but this takes time and work.  I am always looking for help.

God bless.


Ted Davis - #85944

July 5th 2014

I’ve been on vacation for 2 weeks, blessedly without an internet connection, so I haven’t responded to any of the comments, but I appreciate your appreciation of this column! In my experience Ted Peters is all but unknown among lay Christians who follow science and religion, even though he’s one of the top people working in that area. As I’ve often said here, most of the best people don’t have a presence on the web; a print library is needed to dig into them. Perhaps this series will motivate some folks to go offline and do some more reading. 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85951

July 5th 2014


Welcome back.  I am glad that ypou were able to get away and your vacation was refreshing.  Certainly agree that literature in book form has definite advantages over discussion on the web.  That is why I wrote my books.

This brought to mind where I had come ascross the writing of Ted Peters before. When I was researching my book on the Trinity, I looked at Peters’ book, but found it wanting.

So I decided to look at it again, and found some good language but also a serious found problem.  He reduced the Trinity to a Duality, as he does in this piece.  This is quite common and in tune with Western Dualism, but misses the point of the Trinity.

Now I am bringing up the issue of the Trinity again.  God is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, but also all that is Inbetween.  

The argument about Transcendence and Immanence between conservatives and liberals cannot be resolved until we remember that each Person of the Trinity is equal with, but not the same as, the Others.  Also the message of the gospel is NOT the the Transcendance or the Immanance of God, but the Love (Spirit) of God Who defines the Character of God.    

We need to reconcile conservatives and liberals, Science and Christianity, etc, and we do this only through God’s Love as shown through the Trinity.   

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