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I am thankful that Edward Feser read my book. Feser is an accomplished Catholic Thomistic scholar. I would have never guessed he would read my book. Here is a quick response to his critique.

First, Feser said:

“Johnson attributes to Aquinas the view that God “does not have any potencies,” which, he says, makes it mysterious how God could exercise any “active potencies or powers” in creating the world. But what Aquinas actually says (in Summa Theologiae I.25.1) is that though God lacks any passive potency (which is the capacity to undergo change), he is “supreme” in active potency (which is the power to bring about effects in other things).”

In response:

It is strange to me that he thinks I missed this point, when I explained in detail what Aquinas meant by defining God as “Pure Act.”  Aquinas believed God was “supreme in active potency.” This is the very meaning Aquinas assigned the phrase actus purus. I didn’t miss explaining this about Aquinas. How could I have missed this point? It is crucial to my own theses against Aquinas. Aquinas accepted Aristotle’s foundation that God is the unmoved mover, but Aquinas did not embrace Aristotle’s logical conclusion that God could not have been the moving cause of the universe.

By holding Aristotle’s starting point and rejecting Aristotle’s conclusion, Aquinas’ philosophical theology was filled with all kinds of irresolvable tensions. As I explain in my book, Aquinas was unable to show how God could be Pure Act (unmoved mover) and, at the same time, the moving cause (effectual cause) of a world that was made out of nothing. How can Pure Act do something that is not essential to his own pure actuality? How can Pure Act do anything that is not necessary? Aquinas never gave any good answers to these questions. Aristotle sure didn’t think Pure Act could be the moving cause of the universe.

Feser, however, didn’t attempt to answer this dilemma that I raised over and over in my book. I assume that he leapt over it because it can’t be answered. Thomas wasn’t able to reconcile this contradiction, and I am not convinced that anyone is able to do so.

Second, Feser said:

“Further, because Aquinas denies that philosophy can prove that the universe had a temporal beginning, Johnson argues that Aquinas makes God and the universe equally absolute. But this ignores Aquinas’s well-known view that the universe could not exist even for a moment unless God were conserving it in being, which would be true whether or not it has always existed.”

In response:

Of course, Aquinas made this claim. I state this over and over in my book. Aquinas claimed that the universe is not eternal. In disagreement with Aristotle, Aquinas claimed God was the effective cause of the universe and the preserver of the universe. No doubt, Aquinas believed that without God, there is no universe. I wonder how Feser could have missed me saying all of this in the book. It must be noted that Aquinas couldn’t reconcile how the world is not eternal with his Aristotelian foundation that God is Pure Act. The main problem with Aquinas is that he was seeking to reconcile two opposing worldviews that are inherently incompatible. This was my point in bringing up the fact that Aquinas even admitted that philosophy (and natural science) cannot get to a temporal universe.

Third, Feser said:

“Johnson alleges that, according to Aquinas, we can only ever know a “representation of God” rather than God himself, and indeed that “God cannot reveal his undifferentiated knowledge of himself [to us] even if he wanted.” In fact, Aquinas explicitly says (at Summa Theologiae I.12.1) that “it must be absolutely granted that the blessed see the essence of God.” Johnson repeatedly claims that for Aquinas, all statements about God are merely “symbolic” and “metaphorical.” In fact, Aquinas explicitly says (at Summa Theologiae I.13.3) that “not all names are applied to God in a metaphorical sense, but there are some which are said of Him in their literal sense.”

This is very interesting because of the example Feser used to support this particular critique of my book:

“When we describe a man, a book, and a meal as good, we are not using ‘good’ in the same sense in each case. The moral goodness of a man is very different from the literary excellence of a book, and both are very different in turn from the nutritional and culinary virtues of good food. We are stretching the meaning of the word to cover all of the above. We are saying that there is something in the book that is analogous to the goodness we attribute to the man, and something in the meal that is analogous to what we attribute to the book. All the same, we are in each case speaking literally rather than metaphorically. Something similar is true, in Aquinas’s view, of our attribution of goodness to God.”

In response:

In my opinion, this is a bad example and a comparison of apples to oranges. The analogy of how the word “good,” as an adjective, relates to a book, a man, and food is totally different than how Aquinas defined God as good. A good book, a good man, and some good food would all still be what they are in their essence (a book, a man, and food) even if they were not good. Goodness is not the essence of a book, a man, or some food. Goodness is something that is attributed to these created items. However, for Aquinas, God doesn’t just happen to be a good God, He IS the very essence of GOODNESS. God is good. Goodness is who he is. As Aquinas explained:

[God’s] names signify the divine substance and are predicated substantially of God, although they fall short of a full representation of him. Which is proved thus. For these names express God, so far as our intellects know him. Now since our intellect knows God from creatures, it knows him as far as creatures represent him. . . . Hence every creature represents him, and is like him so far as it possesses some perfection; yet it represents him not as something of the same species or genus, but as the excelling principle of whose form the effects fall short, although they derive some kind of likeness thereto, even as the forms of inferior bodies represent the power of the sun. . . . Therefore the aforesaid names signify the divine substance, but in an imperfect manner, even as creatures represent it imperfectly. So when we say, “God is good,” the meaning is not, “God is the cause of goodness,” or “God is not evil”; but the meaning is, “Whatever good we attribute to creatures, pre-exists in God,” and in a more excellent and higher way. Hence it does not follow that God is good, because he causes goodness; but rather, on the contrary, he causes goodness in things because he is good. (ST, 1.13.3)

Moreover, for Aquinas, all of God’s attributes are identical and without differentiation. And when we mix all of God’s attributes together into one soupy undifferentiated blob, then we have no idea how God’s goodness is any different than God’s wrath. What does the word “good” mean, if it means everything that God is? “Now it is evident,” Aquinas claimed, “that the Divine essence cannot be known through the nature of material things. For . . . the knowledge of God by means of any created similitude is not the vision of his essence” (ST, 1.12.11). “Thus, according to the reasoning of Dionysius,” Aquinas said, “it is fitting to say that God is both incomprehensible to all intellects and incontemplatable to us in his essence, in that our intellect has been bound to created things, namely to things which are similar nature to us.”  The knowledge we can have of God is not a knowledge of God’s nature as God knows himself; rather, it is a symbolic knowledge. At best, we can only know the created representation of God painted by sensible and empirical signs taken from this world of sense experience. As Thomas explained, “We cannot know the essence of God in this life, as he really is in himself; but we know him according as he is represented in the perfections of creatures” (ST, 1.13.2). In other words, we can only know the revealed God of symbols and not the hidden God of reality.

In short, though Aquinas may have said that some words defining God are “literal” and not metaphorical, this does not mean Aquinas was consistent with himself.

Fourth, Feser said:

Following Aristotle, Aquinas holds that an analysis of the nature of motion leads to the conclusion that there must be a divine Unmoved Mover who keeps the world going from moment to moment. In that sense, Aquinas holds that Aristotle’s natural science provides a foundation for knowledge of God. Johnson argues that this Aristotelian-Thomistic argument fails, and he attempts to enlist me on his side, alleging that even I “admit” that “sense experience” and “arguments grounded in natural science” cannot get us to a divine Unmoved Mover.

This is a curious mischaracterization of my views. In the essay from which Johnson quotes, I argue that you cannot get to theism using the methods of physics as those methods are typically understood today, which are much narrower than the methods Aristotle included as part of physics. As I go on to argue in that essay, if one does take on board Aristotle’s methods (which, these days, are classified instead as part of the philosophy of nature), then you can get to theism.

In response:

Even with this helpful distinction between modern science and the natural science of Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ days, my point still stands about Feser’s position. Physics alone does not get to the God of the Bible. Feser admits this, and that was my point! Feser is right that Aristotle and Aquinas did not neatly distinguish these two disciplines (physics and metaphysics.) My point, in the section that he is referring to, is that it is a leap of logic to go from pure natural sense (sense experience alone) to the God of the Bible without making some type of philosophical speculation or postulation.

I would like to know what these broader principles are. And did Aristotle and Aquinas disagree on these broader principles because they disagreed on whether or not Pure Act can create a universe out of nothing? Why did Aquinas disagree with Aristotle?

Was it faith that lead Aquinas to disagree with Aristotle? For Aquinas, even reason cannot get us to a temporal universe—for this truth, he said, is a matter of faith. From sense experience, Aristotle’s conclusion is that God and the universe are both eternal and necessary. What broader principles led Aristotle to this conclusion? Aquinas could not embrace Aristotle’s conclusion, so he claimed that the Bible corrects Aristotle’s mistakes. Again, Aquinas admitted that philosophy alone (without the Bible) cannot logically get us to a temporal creation out of nothing and a God of divine providence. These two vital truths about God, according to Thomas, are a matter of faith, not reason: “That there is one God can be proved by reason, but that God has an immediate providence over all things…is a matter of faith.”[1]

By the way, God’s temporal creation and divine providence are both universally communicated in natural revelation. Aquinas didn’t think these two vital truths, truths that greatly impact our knowledge of God, could be known outside of what is revealed in Scripture. And without these two truths, deism and/or pantheism emerge. So, how do the broader principles of Aristotle or Aquinas prove the God of the Bible?

Again, if the natural theology of Aristotle can’t get us to the God of the Bible, what broader principles does Thomas Aquinas use to bridge the gap, and how does he bridge this gap without contradicting his Aristotelian foundation? Again, we are back to my critique of Thomas that no one wants to answer.

Fifth, Feser said:

Aquinas, like other traditional theologians, holds that God is simple in the sense of not being made up of parts, and immutable in the sense of not undergoing change. Johnson says he agrees with Aquinas about that much, but objects to Aquinas’s purported further attribution to God of something Johnson calls “immobility.” What is immobility? It isn’t entirely clear. Sometimes by “immobility” Johnson seems to have in mind changelessness (which is the same thing as immutability). But in other places Johnson uses “immobility” to mean the absence of “the willful exertion of power.” Yet contrary to what Johnson asserts, Aquinas never denies that God willfully exerts power. As noted above, Aquinas holds that God is supreme in active power.

My response:

Again, I say over and over that Aquinas, unlike his favorite philosopher, claimed God is both the unmoved mover and the moving cause of the universe. Aquinas wanted Aristotle’s philosophy and the Bible’s theology. Yes, Aquinas claimed God exerted willful power in creation. I cite him saying such statements. I never denied this about Aquinas. In fact, that is one of my main points. Aquinas held on to the foundation of Aristotle (that God can’t exert unnecessary and willful power) and, at the same time, he confessed the orthodoxy of Scripture (by stating that God did exert willful power.) The problem is that Aquinas could not reconcile, no matter how hard he tried, these two opposing and contradictory claims.

I actually wonder if Feser read or merely skimmed my book. How did he miss this crucial point? Again, this is the crux of my critique—this is “the failure of the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas.” This critique, the failure, is my very thesis. I have yet to read a critique of my book that attempts to answer my critique of Aquinas.

Sixth, Feser said:

Johnson goes on at great length about this “immobility” thesis, which he wrongly attributes to Aquinas, alleging, among other purported offenses, that the idea is incompatible with the Trinitarian claim that God is three divine Persons. How so? Because, Johnson says, the thesis implies that there is no “differentiation” in God. But a purported lack of differentiation in God would follow not from “immobility” per se, but rather from divine simplicity—which Johnson himself says he accepts! Johnson’s discussion of these matters is too woolly and superficial to be of much interest, but what he fails to see is that if his criticisms drew any blood at all, they would take down his own views no less than Aquinas’s.

My response:

I go to great lengths to explain the difference between the two forms of simplicity—a simplicity rooted in philosophy (which I reject,) and a simplicity rooted in Scripture (which I accept.) I assume that, with his understanding of divine simplicity, if he read this section of my book more closely, he would have denied that I hold to simplicity at all.

On a side note, I wonder if Protestant Thomists agree with Feser’s claim that I wrongly attribute immobility to Aquinas’s understanding of God. I wonder if they would deny that God is immobile.

Seventh, Feser said:

“The title of Johnson’s book reflects another of its deeply muddled themes. “Natural theology” is the attempt to arrive at knowledge of the existence and nature of God through purely philosophical arguments. Johnson, like many other Calvinists, objects to the very idea, though he tells us he has no problem with what he calls “natural revelation.” What’s the difference? Natural theology infers or reasons from the world of our experience to a divine first cause with attributes such as omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect goodness. Johnson alleges that because this involves philosophical argumentation, it cannot be known by all or with certainty, and that in any event it amounts to relying on human wisdom to construct a mere idol. Natural revelation, by contrast, involves a certain and direct or non-inferential awareness of the true God’s existence and nature, and one that is had by all human beings. Johnson claims that natural revelation in this sense is what biblical writers like St. Paul affirm (for instance, in the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans).

“The problems with all of this are obvious. First, it is just silly to allege that, because it relies on human reason, natural theology amounts to the construction of an idol. You might as well say that the Bible presents us with a manmade idol rather than the true God, on the grounds that it is written in human languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), and that we need to use our human eyeballs in order to read it and our human cognitive powers in order to understand it.

“Second, the claim that all human beings know non-inferentially and with certainty that there is a single omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good creator of the universe is manifestly false. There are, after all, atheists, and also people who believe in God but have various mistaken beliefs about him (that he is identical with the world, that he is not all-powerful, and so on). Johnson would insist that such people don’t really lack knowledge of God and his nature, but are merely trying to repress what is obvious to them. Needless to say, this foot-stomping simply begs the question and does nothing to answer the evidence against Johnson’s thesis.

“Johnson would retort that the Bible itself teaches “natural revelation” in his sense, rather than natural theology. Says who? Aquinas and other classical theists hold that what biblical writers like Paul had in mind was in fact natural theology, and that it is precisely through the possibility of philosophical arguments that God’s existence and nature can be known from the natural world. Johnson claims that this is a misunderstanding of the relevant scriptural passages. But he merely asserts this. He gives no non-question-begging arguments for this interpretation. To demonstrate something from the Bible, you need to do more than thump it.

My response:

I have two responses:

First, I explain from Psalm 19 and Romans 1 that natural revelation is universally and immediately understood by all of humanity, leaving everyone (even non-philosophers) without excuse. On second thought, maybe I am just thumping my Bible, for that is what the Bible is clearly saying: “There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard” (Ps. 19:1) and “[f]or what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:19-20.) God is so perfect at revealing himself to man that, as with the awareness of their own consciences (which, too, goes beyond the reach of natural science,) all men know God by knowing themselves. They don’t need syllogisms and argumentation and proofs to know God. It was Aquinas who denied that natural theology was universally understood by all. So, I think it is him, and not me, who has some explaining to do.

Second, I would ask people to read my other book on the topic, Saving Natural Theology from Thomas Aquinas. In that book, I explain in detail why Aquinas didn’t build his natural theology on natural revelation.

Eighth, Feser said:

“Johnson tells us that the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus, who influenced Aquinas, “didn’t leave behind any writings.”

My response:

This is an error in the book that will be corrected in a later edition. The quote in the book should read that Plotinus did not publish any writings. It is widely accepted that Porphyry, a student of Plotinus, edited and published The Enneads, the only known collection of work by Plotinus.  It should be noted that pages 75-78 of my book specifically cover the Platonism of Plotinus, and page 78 covers the Platonism of Porphyry, and how he attempted to use Neoplatonism to undermine Christianity.

Ninth, Feser said:

Purportedly quoting the passage from the Summa Theologiae wherein Aquinas presents his Second Way of proving God’s existence, ­Johnson attributes to this argument the claim that “efficient ­causes do not extend ad infinitum into the past.” Not only is this not what the text says, but when proving God’s existence, Aquinas purposefully avoids the question of whether the series of causes extending backward into the past had a beginning. A little time with ­Google reveals that what Johnson presents as a passage from the ­Summa was not taken from any translation of that work, but instead was cut and ­pasted from a random source on the internet purporting to reconstruct Aquinas’s reasoning.

My response:

There was indeed an unintentional copy/paste error regarding ST 1.2.3, which will be corrected in later editions. In my research I had collected hundreds of cations from the works of Aquinas, and I attempted to reconcile the various translations of the Summa to the Benziger Bros. edition, 1947, Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. This cititon unfortunately was overlooked. My book, on page 101, says:

“We perceive a series of efficient causes of things in the world. Nothing exists prior to itself. Therefore nothing [in the world of things we perceive] is the efficient cause of itself. If a previous efficient cause does not exist, neither does the thing that results (the effect). Therefore if the first thing in a series does not exist, nothing in the series exists. If the series of efficient causes extends ad infinitum into the past, then there would be no things existing now. That is plainly false (i.e., there are things existing now that came about through efficient causes). Therefore efficient causes do not extend ad infinitum into the past. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God” (ST, 1.2.3).

The correct quotation that should have been used is here:

There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God” (ST, 1.2.3).

Unfortunately, an incorrect quotation (a short summary) of the Summa was used in that section of the book, but the substance of what was communicated by Aquinas was not compromised. After Aquinas admits “if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause … all of which is plainly false.”  Aquinas did not question a beginning; rather, he proved a beginning by saying, “[t]herefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause.…”

In conclusion:

Nothing presented by Feser addresses the core arguments I have presented against the natural theology of Aquinas. Divine immobility is incompatible with the God of the Bible. A constructed worldview where all knowledge is derived from sensory experience is a worldview where all facts and falsities are simply philosophical assumptions. We have the Scriptures to consult.  It might just be time to thump the Bible again.

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Compendium Theologiae. Trans. Cyril Vollert, S.J. Ed. Paul A. Böer, Sr. (Edmond, OK: Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2012), 2.246.

7 thoughts on “Doubting Thomas Indeed: A Quick Response to Edward Feser

  1. This is a very well written and even-handed article. It is direct but not overly aggressive. It does a great job of showing what scholarly dialogue/debate should look like. I also happen to agree with it. 🙂

  2. Dr. Johnson, I have a question. What brings you to believe Aquinas’ Second Way tries to prove a beginning of the universe when you wrote just earlier that he believes one cannot prove philosophically the beginning of the universe? Just wondering what your thoughts are on that.

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