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Aquinas vs. Intelligent Design II

thomas_aquinas-719213.jpg St. Thomas william-paley-1-sized.jpg William Paley

In a previous entry on Aquinas vs. Intelligent Design, in which I link to the work of Gonzaga philosophy professor Michael Tkacz, I end with this comment: "I do wish, however, that Professor Tkacz had addressed the question of how the Christian should think of God's interventions in those events we call miraculous." Apparently, I am not the only one who raised this query or one similar to it. I know this because an associate editor of the periodical in which Professor Tkacz's appeared, This Rock (published by Catholic Answers), Sophia A. Sproule, was kind enough to send me the following email message just yesterday afternoon. It includes a response from Professor Tkacz. I am grateful to both Ms. Sproule and Professor Tkacz for taking the time to address this query.

Thank you for commenting on Michael Tkacz’ recent article in This Rock, “Aquinas vs. Intelligent Design,” on your blog. I see that it has spurred quite a debate with readers. You observe that “I do wish, however, that Professor Tkacz had addressed the question of how the Christian should think of God's interventions in those events we call miraculous.” You may be interested to know that we received several letters asking the very same – one reader, in fact, was sufficiently disturbed by Dr. Tkacz’ story to suggest that it was detrimental to the faith of our readers. That particular letter will appear in our April 2009 issue. As it directly pertains to your question, however, I submit Dr. Tkacz’ response to the letter below.

Michael T. Tkacz replies:

I fully understand [letter writer] Mr. Kirby’s concern about what seems to him a denial of the reality of miracles and the efficacy of prayer. I also understand how one may come to have such a concern after reading an account of St. Thomas Aquinas’ analysis of the doctrine of creation. This analysis is philosophically sophisticated and demands careful study to understand correctly. Let me reassure Mr. Kirby that nothing in St. Thomas’ analysis is contrary to church teaching on these issues, nor did I intend to defend any unorthodox position in my article. Indeed, I affirmed both the reality of miracles and the efficacy of prayer in the responses to my readers. Nonetheless, Mr. Kirby is quite correct that neither my article nor my responses provided an extended account of these subjects. My article focused on the correct understanding of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, naturally leaving many related issues unaddressed. One cannot do everything in one article, but perhaps I can put some of Mr. Kirby’s concerns to rest.

Regarding miracles, Thomas points out that God cannot do anything contrary to the order he established in nature. If he did, then God would be acting contrary to his own intention and goodness, which is impossible. So, whatever miracles are, they are not opposed to nature. Rather, says Thomas, miracles are God acting apart from nature. One way in which God reveals himself to us is through rarely occurring, unexplained events that trigger our admiration and draw our attention to his revelation. This is not God adjusting or fixing-up nature to make it better. God created nature to begin with and it is, therefore, already good. Rather, God is doing another good in addition to the good he is already doing in creating and sustaining nature. Thus, Thomas’ point, that creation is not a natural change, is confirmed by miracles, because miracles are no more a part of the natural order than is creation. As Thomas says about the raising of Lazarus, it is not as if something went wrong in nature and God intervened to fix it up. Lazarus’ death is a natural process operating precisely according to the order God gave nature in creation. In raising Lazarus, God is doing good by giving life in a way different from the way new life is caused in nature. God does this as a revelation, providing us with a type of the Resurrection of Christ. Thomas is hardly denying miracles here. Instead, he is providing a better understanding of them through a more consistent and correct account of divine action.

As for prayer, Thomas warns that we must avoid misunderstanding that may lead to false doctrine. God is absolutely unchangeable and his goodness is absolutely constant and pervasive. The purpose of prayer, then, cannot be to change God’s eternal providential disposition, for this is impossible. We cannot change God and we cannot move him to do what we want in any way. Rather, the purpose of prayer is to dispose us to receive the good God intends for us. This he already provides, not in the sense that he does so before the time we pray (there is no “before” in God’s actions), but in the sense that he does so independently of our prayer. God intends our good whether we pray or not. The point of the necessity of our being steadfast in prayer is not that we can thereby somehow force, pester, embarrass, or manipulate God into giving us what we want. God does not need our prayer, nor does he depend on it in order to intend our good. Rather, the point is that we need our prayer; we need to be constantly acknowledging our dependence on God for all good things.

A central doctrine of the faith is the absolute transcendence of God. He is the unchangeable absolute reality that is the source of all being and good. He created everything from nothing and makes it good. Yet, this very transcendence makes it difficult to understand what God is and how he acts. The best we limited human knowers can do is to use analogies with ourselves and the rest of the natural world. For this reason, we must, in speaking of God, be careful not to be mislead by our analogies. We cannot explain with scientific precision just how God does what he does, for God transcends human understanding. We can, however, be clear about what God is not: God is like nothing else; he acts in a way that is radically different from anything we know in nature. God does not act as natural causes do, nor does he from time to time substitute for a natural cause. What God does do is to create sustainingly in a single divine act of power and goodness. Thomas affirms that we can use our natural analogies for God, provided we are constantly aware of them as mere analogies. This is the point of Thomas’s analysis of the doctrine of creation and of my article: Failure to exercise proper care in our theological claims can result in the misunderstandings and inconsistencies that undermine true doctrine. Additionally, strongly to affirm God’s transcendence in the way Thomas does most certainly confirms the reality of miracles and the efficacy of prayer.

Comments (8)

Rather, the purpose of prayer is to dispose us to receive the good God intends for us.

If that is what Thomas says (I do not know), then I disagree with Thomas. The doctrine of Divine impassability must be consistent with the clear scriptural teaching, including teaching from our Lord, of the relevance and at least possible efficacy of petitionary prayer. Think of the parable of the unjust judge (and Jesus' express gloss on it) and of Jesus' repeated statements that we should ask in order to receive and that if we do not receive, this is at least in part because we do not ask. If the philosophical notion of Divine impassability cannot be made compatible with these unequivocal teachings, then it needs to be rethought. C. S. Lewis's solution on this point was to invoke a Boethian concept of Divine timelessness and to argue that God takes our prayers into account from all eternity.

On Lazarus, I think he chooses a poor example, because of course human death was not part of the natural order at the outset but came about as a result of sin. St. Paul is quite clear on that subject.

Finally, one can certainly characterize miracles as not being "contrary to nature" and as not being matters of "fixing problems," though in the case of healing miracles, I suppose it could be a normal phrase to use to say that God is "fixing" the body that had developed cancer. However, to say that miracles are not contrary to nature tells us nothing about when they do and don't happen, particularly in the case of origins questions. It is the doctrinaire theistic evolutionist who uses a Spinozistic complaint to imply that Divine intervention in, say, the origin of the cell would be objectionable on the grounds that God must in that case have made a "defective" nature and would be "fixing" it if nature were incapable of making a cell on its own. That is _their_ characterization, _their_ complaint concerning design claims about specific systems or entities. It seems exceedingly odd to anyone who thinks that God did intervene to make the first cell. There is no more reason to think that a nature that doesn't spontaneously make the first cell is "defective" than to think that a nature that does not spontaneously produce a B52 bomber is "defective." So the statement that miracles need not be thought of as contrary to nature and need not be fixing defects in nature, true as far as it goes, does not at all tell us what God would or would not do in a case like the origin of life or, for that matter, the blood-clotting cascade.

Regardging Aquinas:


ST II II Q 83, 2 ad 2:
Our motive in praying is, not Divine disposition, we may change the Divine disposition, but that, by our prayers, we may obtain what God has appointed.

But that quotation does not, I think, really answer the question that Lydia's response suggests: in Aquinas's view, does God at least sometimes do things which, were it not for the prayer, He would not have done? It is no answer to this to say that God had appointed these things to be done from all eternity; for God has also known from all eternity what petitions we would make, and it is consistent with everything here quoted that, had it not been the case that we would in the fullness of time make these petitions, then God would not from all eternity have appointed these things to be given to us.

Thanks for the link. I find this in the same location:

In order to throw light on this question we must consider that Divine providence disposes not only what effects shall take place, but also from what causes and in what order these effects shall proceed. Now among other causes human acts are the causes of certain effects. Wherefore it must be that men do certain actions. not that thereby they may change the Divine disposition, but that by those actions they may achieve certain effects according to the order of the Divine disposition: and the same is to be said of natural causes. And so is it with regard to prayer. For we pray not that we may change the Divine disposition, but that we may impetrate that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers...

I had never seen the word "impetrate" before and had to look it up. I find two definitions: "To obtain by request or entreaty" and "To implore."

This looks to me exactly like Lewis's position, as far as I can tell.

From the quotation from Aquinas that Lydia provides, it looks to me like Tkacz has seriously misrepresented Aquinas. In particular, I can see no way to reconcile Thomas's statement that we pray

that we may impetrate that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers

with Tkacz's claim that

he does so independently of our prayer.

The debate about what St. Thomas Aquinas believed about the relationship of Divine impassability and prayer has been going on since the mid 1600s.
In the Oxford English Dictionary the first reference to hypercalvinist is to Aquinas.

1674 Hickman Quinquart. Hist. (ed 2) 68 Thomas Aquinas ... is rather a Hypercalvinian then not a Calvinist in this matter of the absolute Decree.

I've been worrying about Divine impassibility versus creaturely freedom and agency for a long time. While it's not very satisfactory, the best I have been able to make of it has been informed on the one hand by Boethius (& Lewis), and on the other by the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, of all things. MWI seems nuts to me, but one thing it has taught me is the reality of the realm of the possible. In brief, the reason there are many possible histories, and thus creaturely freedom to choose from among them a contribution toward the actualization of just one, is that God has from all eternity anticipated everything that could happen in any possible state of affairs; and that anticipation is what makes such states of affairs possible in the first place. [Note that whatever contingency x is really possible, in an absolute sense, must be possible necessarily - if x is _ever_ possible, x has _necessarily_ been possible from all eternity. So there must be a deep connection between the necessity of the array of contingent possibilities and the Divine necessity.]

Thus if we pray, we dispose ourselves (and urge the rest of the world) toward those future states of things God has eternally provided for us in the event that we should we pray; if instead we have a beer, we dispose ourselves (and urge the world) toward those future states of things God has eternally provided for us in the event that we should have a beer. No matter how we decide among the vast array of options open to us at every moment, then, we will find once we do decide that God has forever been waiting there for us already. Whether or not we pray, God has arranged a set of futures that would become relevant to the world in the event that we pray, and another set that would become relevant in the event that we did not. In a sense, then, whenever and however we act, we invoke to the world that set of futures that had been prepared for us from before its foundation, in the event that we should come to invoke them.

And so likewise with everything we do, for each new creaturely contribution to history changes forever the complexion of the array of possible futures that are compossible with the world as it has so far been constituted, by altering that constitution. Note the link between erg, urge, liturgy. The futures provided for us from before Genesis, having existed eternally qua possibilities, have existed independently of our prayer. Yet it is still the case that God has disposed some futures for us that can possibly be fulfilled in the event that we pray, and others that cannot possibly be fulfilled unless we do.

If different possible futures are not truly open to us, then they aren't possibilities at all, and intensional concepts such as "work," "prayer," "sin," and so forth, are really empty. In that case, intensionality becomes an empty category. But since pretty much everything about us is intensional, and since we are real, the future cannot be closed.

But while I beleive that this idea makes it possible to see how that which God has disposed to be fulfilled by our prayers, He has disposed independently of our prayers, I'm not really happy with it. It is susceptible to the standard objection to Boethian Divine supratemporality: that it makes of the Love of God for His creatures pretty thin gruel.

So I think I don't really understand Boethian Divine supratemporality. It can't be the threadbare thing that is all I can make it out to be. God being supernal, it must be more than I can imagine, rather than less. The best I have been able to do is to wonder whether Divine supratemporality is, not so much timelessness, as timefuless. And I'm trying to figure out what timefulness might be.

I got tied up. I said, "Yet it is still the case that God has disposed some futures for us that can possibly be fulfilled in the event that we pray, and others that cannot possibly be fulfilled unless we do."

I should have said, "Yet it is still the case that God has disposed some futures for us that can possibly be fulfilled in the event that we pray, and others that cannot possibly be fulfilled if we do."

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