31 July 2002

I’m going to return now to the discussion of nominalism that I began earlier, but I’m going to have to break it up into a series of shorter posts for it to be manageable. Eventually I hope to write this up as some kind of essay, but I’m not there yet. I’m going to continue here at present by means of a double detour through Reformed theology and Thomas Aquinas.

There are certain varieties of Reformed apologetics and philosophy that identify themselves as “presuppositionalist” in character, thereby distinguishing themselves from “classical” or “evidentialist” approaches, particularly various attempts at constructing “natural theology” (for a broader explanation of what so-called presuppositionalism is all about, I have "A Primer on Presuppositionalism" that might be helpful).

One could explain these differences in approach (between presuppositionalism and evidentialism) theoretically or practically, but I would prefer to do so historically. Far too often, I think, Reformed thought of various stripes fails to take itself as historically situated, embedded within the larger narrative of western (Christian) thought. But if we are truly presuppositional in our outlook, then it will be necessary to explore fully our own presuppositions and their genealogy.

My basic contention is that “presuppositionalism” only makes sense against the background of a certain kind of Enlightenment rationalism and the natural theology that was associated with it (Paley comes to mind, but the roots go much further back). When presuppositionalism inveighs against “classical” or “evidentialist” apologetics, it is that historically specific kind of apologetics that was fully complicit with the “modern” with its commitment to foundationalism, universal reason, scientific models of knowledge, and the like. That modernism, in turn, is indebted to certain trends that already were in place, for example, in the thought of John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) and then the later nominalists.

To trace this history I must begin with the views of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). You may detect that I read Thomas as himself something of a “presuppositionalist,” rather than as a “classical” or “evidentialist” theologian (I’ve argued here before for this kind of interpretation of Thomas). And I think this can be fairly well substantiated from the last century or so of Thomas scholarship. Nonetheless, the typical presuppositionalist reading of Thomas (a reading which you find not only in Cornelius van Til, but equally in Herman Dooyeweerd and even Francis Schaeffer) is certainly mistaken, on at least two counts:[a] it views Thomas Aquinas through the lens of a latter “thomism” (particularly the 19th and 20th century neo-scholasticism that found its last champions in Mercier and Garrigou-Lagrange) and this thomism is more indebted to Cajetan, Bellarmine, and Suarez than to Thomas himself;

[b] it anachronistically reads back into Thomas a kind of evidentialism that, in fact, did not come into its own for at least 400 years after Thomas' death (though that kind of evidentialism arguably had its roots in early 17th century Catholic theologians like Lessius; see, e.g., Michael Buckley's At the Origins of Modern Atheism).
The story of how we get from Thomas Aquinas to the later nominalism and evidentialism that is often identified with “classical apologetics” goes something like the following.

We need to begin here with the (modernist) notion of “nature” as that is understood in distinction over against “grace” and various concomitant distinctions such as reason and faith, nature and supernature, sacred and secular, and so on. It is, after all, only within a system that makes such distinctions that we can even have a sphere of what is purely natural or impartially rational, a neutral secular “reason” which can claim to arbitrate the claims of the Christian faith or a fully "natural theology." And only on that presupposition can the typical description of classical apologetics make any sense.

But when we turn back to Thomas Aquinas we find that he draws no such sharp distinctions and does not isolate a particular area of human life as somehow neutrally free from the claims of faith or the influence of grace. For Thomas the “natural” is not the self-contained world of manipulable matter that is the opposite of “artificial” (as it became in later thought) and so the “supernatural” is not some second story of “stuff” that is somehow added to a more basic nature.

On the contrary, for Thomas “natura” has to do with kinds of things, their origins and ends, and what they do (including making “artificial” things), as they are organized in relation to one another in a single whole. All things within their fundamental relations to other things within this whole are “natural.” Those very same things, however, are “supernatural” in terms of their absolute origins since all creation is ultimately pure gift (i.e., grace) and they aim at God as their end since life within God is the graciously given goal of all creation. “Natural” and “supernatural” for Thomas, therefore, are adjectival or adverbial and have no reference to a distinction in substance. Nature is always-already “graced” (de Lubac speaks here of a single "double-gift" of creation and grace; see my essay "Rahner and de Lubac on Nature and Grace").

Since the creation is from God, is directed towards God, and stands in relation to God, it is like God and revelatory of God. Nevertheless, this revelatory likeness is only analogous—thus the notion of an analogia entis or “analogy of being.” Analogy implies both likeness and unlikeness. Since everything is created by God it images him (supremely human beings, individually and corporately); but since everything is created by God it images him only within the greater and absolute divide between Creator and creature. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) had formulated this in the following way: for every similarity between God and the creature there is an even greater dissimilarity (maior dissimulitudo in tanta similitudine).

Contrary to the contentions of some presuppositionalists, this is decidedly not “chain of being” thinking, but a sophisticated account of the absolute distinction between Creator and creator and the all-encompassing Lordship of God over his creation. As we shall see, it is in fact the later developments in Scotus and nominalism that move in the direction of a “chain of being.”

In any case, part of the upshot of this is the fact that, according to Thomas, when we say “God exists” and “creatures exist” we are using the term “exists” analogously, not purely univocally (and not equivocally either, since a real likeness is there). To use terms univocally is to use them with precisely the same meaning, for instance, the way the term "dog" functions in the sentence, "My dog is bigger than your dog." To use terms equivocally is to use them in significantly different senses, for instance, the way the term "chair" is used in the sentences, "The chair of my department is retiring" and "The [desk] chair has a broken leg." To use terms analogically is to use them in a way that assumes real similarity and connection, but within difference, for instance, when we say that a person is "healthy" and that certain foods are "healthy."

Applying this theologically, Thomas would say that for God to “exist” is to exist non-derivatively, independently, originally, a se, etc. For us to “exist” is to exist derivatively, dependently, createdly, in deus, etc. In God, existence and essence are co-terminous and identical. In the creature, there is a real distinction between existence and essence (we don’t have to exist) that gives primacy of act over form as the concrete and particular subsistence of things. Nevertheless, for Thomas, there are real analogies between the divine existence and creaturely existence, founded upon the doctrine of creation.

Precisely what this means and how it works out in metaphysics, epistemology, language, and the like—and how nominalism undermines this basic picture—will have to await a further post.