Doubting Thomas (Aquinas)

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

Doubting Thomas (Aquinas)


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.

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 ofcreatio 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.


About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.