Posts tagged ‘Thomas Aquinas’

Why Didn’t God Do A Better Job?

Thomas Aquinas

“If…then why?”  I have been asked many a question about God which involved these three words.  “If God knew that Adam and Eve were going to eat the forbidden fruit, then why did God put the tree there in the first place?”  “If God knew some people were going to reject Him, then why did He even create them?”  “If God is so good and loving, then why do so many bad things happen?”

Truth be told, there are no easy or complete answers to these questions.  Indeed, all of these questions have behind them the problem of “theodicy,” a term borrowed from Greek meaning, “the justice of God.”  Theodicy describes the struggle to reconcile the perfect justice of God’s character with the sinful injustice in the world He created.

I have blogged about the problem of theodicy before.  And yet, it is impossible to address this troubling issue exhaustively, for no human understands it completely.  So, there is always more to say.  Thus, I thought it might be helpful to interact with this problem once again from yet another angle.  This time, Thomas Aquinas, the great thirteenth century theologian of the Roman Catholic Church, gives us some keen insight into theodicy.

Aquinas, in his seminal work Summa Theologica, makes a distinction between God’s absolute power and God’s ordained power.  God’s absolute power refers to the nearly infinite number of possibilities which God could conceivably bring to pass while His ordained power describes what God actually does.  Aquinas writes of God’s absolute power:

Now God cannot be said to be omnipotent through being able to do all things that are possible to created nature; for the divine power extends farther than that. If, however, we were to say that God is omnipotent because He can do all things that are possible to His power, there would be a vicious circle in explaining the nature of His power. For this would be saying nothing else but that God is omnipotent, because He can do all that He is able to do. It remains therefore, that God is called omnipotent because He can do all things that are possible absolutely; which is the second way of saying a thing is possible. For a thing is said to be possible or impossible absolutely, according to the relation in which the very terms stand to one another, possible if the predicate is not incompatible with the subject…and absolutely impossible when the predicate is altogether incompatible with the subject.[1]

Interestingly, even within the realm of God’s absolute power, Aquinas allows that there are certain things which are “absolutely impossible.”  That is, there are certain things not even God is able to do – not because they fall outside of the purview of His power, but because to demand them is utterly nonsensical.  For instance, the old cliché question “Can God make a rock so big He can’t move it?” is impossible to answer not because it exposes some hidden limit to God’s power, but because it doesn’t make any sense.  To answer this question with either a “yes” or a “no” is to compromise God’s omnipotence in some way.  In this sense, then, this question is not “possible” of God.  It is not possible at all.

Aquinas then goes on to speak of God’s ordained power:

We must say that God can do other things by His absolute power than those He has foreknown and pre-ordained He would do. But it could not happen that He should do anything which He had not foreknown, and had not pre-ordained that He would do, because His actual doing is subject to His foreknowledge and pre-ordination, though His power, which is His nature, is not so. For God does things because He wills so to do; yet the power to do them does not come from His will, but from His nature.[2]

This is heady stuff, but it is nevertheless important.  Aquinas explains that though there are many things God could do according to the omnipotence of His nature, there are many things God does not desire to do according to the foreknowledge of His will.  If God were to do these “other” things, these would be in contradiction to His perfect foreknowledge, thus compromising the integrity of one attribute of God – His foreknowledge – for another – His omnipotence.  And if God’s foreknowledge is compromised, ultimately, so is His omnipotence.  For then God is not powerful enough to figure out even what He Himself is doing!

Thus, the only way we can understand the power of God is in what God actually does, not in what we wish He would do.  This means, much to our chagrin, our many “If…then why” questions and accusations of God are futile.  For we cannot deal with God theoretically and abstractly in His absolute power, we can only deal with Him realistically and concretely in His ordained power.

We are not the first generation to speculate concerning the possibilities of God’s absolute power over and against the realities of His ordained power.  The fifteenth century Roman Catholic Desiderius Erasmus found many of the speculative questions the armchair theologians of his day were asking to be deplorable:

  • Can God undo the past, such as making a harlot into a virgin?
  • Could God have become a beetle or a cucumber, instead of a human?[3]

And you thought we had tough questions of God!  Although the questions we ask concerning God’s absolute power may strike us as slightly less silly, they are nevertheless of the same ilk as the questions of Erasmus’ day.  For they are conjectures based on nothing more than the supercilious speculations of our fertile imaginations.

So what does all this mean?  On the one hand, it means that questions concerning why God created human beings if He knew they were going to sin and make a mess out of His world are not only unanswerable, they’re foolish.  Alternate scenarios of the way God could have done things can be multiplied ad infinatum.  The problem with these scenarios is that just when someone imagines one scenario that is better than the one we currently have, someone else imagines yet another scenario better than the already imagined one.  Thus, even if we had another scenario, we would likely be imagining still other scenarios and asking God why we did not have those!  To speculate about other scenarios that ask God “Why didn’t You do things this way?” is only to lead us down a careening path of theoretical improvement that ultimately leads and ends nowhere.  On the other hand, we can also rest assured that, according to God’s ordained power, it’s not as if God doesn’t know what He’s doing.  After all, everything is here and is the way it is according to God’s foreknowledge.  In other words, He knew things were going to turn out this way all along.  The question is:  Do we trust that God knows what He’s doing in His ordained power, or do we belligerently complain to God, explaining how we could have done a better job than He?

Finally, speculation about the way things could be or the way we think things should be leads only to frustration.  We have what is; not what is not.  But we also hope for what will be.  Though there is sin and despair in this world right now, it will not be this way forever.  God has promised to us perfection at the Parousia.  And His foreknowledge is immutable.  This assures us that this perfection will come to pass.  Thus, when we are content with what is while also looking forward to what is to come, we find true fulfillment.

So, frustration over what isn’t or fulfillment from trusting in a God who has created what is and will ultimately bring righteousness to reign – which would you rather have?


[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1.25.3.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1.25.5.

[3] Erasmus, Opera Omnia, 6.927 B-C.

June 11, 2012 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Weekend Extra – Don’t Settle for All-Natural

In 1802, British Christian apologist William Paley published what has become one of the most famous arguments for the existence of God.  He wrote:

“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I know to the contrary, it had lain there forever…But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had given before…For its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose.”[1]

This argument is classically called “the argument from design.”  The argument runs like this:  When we look around at the irreducible complexity of our world, we cannot help but wonder about the origin of our stunning surroundings.  For someone certainly had to knit together this vast and intricate universe!  And that “someone,” Paley argues, is God.

In his argument, Paley appeals to what is known as “natural revelation.”  Natural revelation describes the human ability to discern God’s existence by means of basic reason.  And basic reasons deduces, when confronted with a remarkable creation like ours, that there is indeed a Creator!  Thomas Aquinas explains natural revelation thusly: “There are some truths which the natural reason is able to reach.  Such are that God exists, that He is one, and the like.”[2]  John of Damascus describes natural revelation similarly, but adds that we not only deduce God’s existence by our reason, but know of God’s existence from our very creation: “The awareness that God exists in implanted by nature in everybody.”[3]

Scripturally, the doctrine of natural knowledge is asserted in Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voicegoes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4)

The verbs in verse 1 are striking.  “The heavens declare the glory of God…”  The verb “declare” is often translated as “number.”  The glories of God are infinitely numbered by the heavens!  After all, every star is a testament to its Creator!  “The skies proclaim the work of His hands…”  The verb for “proclaim” in Hebrew is nagad, meaning, “conspicuous.” In other words, God is not hidden by His creation, He is plainly revealed through His creation for anyone who cares to see!  This is natural revelation.

As wonderful as natural revelation is, it only goes so far.  For although natural revelation can tell us there is a God, it cannot tell us who this God is.  Indeed, the Thomas Aquinas quote I cited earlier is only the second half of the quote.  The whole quote reads: “There is a twofold mode of truth in what we profess about God.  Some truths about God exceed all the ability of human reason.  Such is the truth that God is triune.  There are some truths which the natural reason is able to reach.  Such are that God exists, that He is one, and the like.”  Aquinas knows that human reason can only get you so far when it comes to the divine.  In fact, human reason won’t get you very far when it comes to the divine!  Martin Luther explains why:

All heathen known to say that much of God as reason can know from His works, i.e. that He is a creator of all things, and that one should be obedient to Him etc.  We know, however, that they don’t yet have the true God, because they do not want to hear His word, which He has revealed about Himself from the beginning of the world to the holy fathers and prophets, and at last through Christ Himself and His apostles.[4]

Luther here makes a critical distinction between natural revelation and biblical revelation.  Natural revelation can declare the glory of God.  But only biblical revelation can tell someone about Jesus and His sacrifice.  Natural revelation can reveal God’s power.  But only biblical revelation can comfort with God’s grace.  This is why the Psalmist does not leave us stuck in the realm of natural revelation.  He continues:

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. By them is Your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. (Psalm 19:7-12)

The Psalmist moves from God’s glory in creation to God’s forgiveness in Scriptural revelation.  He asks the Lord to forgive his sins.

The sunny days.  The starry nights.  The majestic mountains.  The gentle breezes.  The lazy rivers.  In all of these we see God.  But only in Scripture do we hear God.  For in Scripture God declares to us His intention for us.  And His intention is one of salvation.  Praise God that we can not only see His handiwork, but read His Word![5]

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[1] William Paley, Natural Theology (London: J. Faulder, 1809) 1-2.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 1.3.2.

[3] John of Damascus, De fide Orthodoxa, 1.1.

[4] Martin Luther, WA 51:151 (Roland Ziegler, trans.).

[5] For a nice discussion of natural revelation, see Roland Ziegler, “Natural Knowledge of God and the Trinity,” Concordia Theological Quarterly, vol. 69:2 (April 2005) 133-154. Many of my thoughts in this blog are indebted to this article.

August 22, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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