Thursday, December 02, 2021

Historical Theology - Theology & Natural Law: The Legacy of Thomas Aquinas

Question: Where do Christians go to find answers to ethical questions that aren’t specifically addressed in Scripture? For instance, if someone asks me, “Is smoking a sin? Is contraception a sin? Why is slavery now considered unconscionable if it was accepted as a fact of life in the New Testament?”—how should I respond? Where do we go for answers if the Bible doesn’t specifically address such issues?

We Baptists don’t have a handy, immediate source for questions like this. We tend to prefer to start with biblical verses (such as “love your neighbor as yourself”) and then reason from there, even if the specific issue in mind isn’t addressed by the verse itself (so, since we are called to love our neighbors, that is, to do unto them as we would have them do unto us, and Jesus implies that everyone is our neighbor, then slavery cannot be morally right). This is persuasive up to a point, but on some issues, the opposing viewpoint is able to argue right back by reasoning from Scripture. (On the slavery issue, Christians in the south argued that it was justified by God’s cursing of Canaan in Genesis 9, by the fact that OT saints like Abraham had slaves, and by the fact that no one in the NT condemns it—in fact, in Philemon, Paul sends a runaway slave back to his master.) So, is there another authority we can reason from besides just the Bible in order to make our case? The tradition of Christianity says that there is: a system of ethical reasoning known as “natural law.” The basic principle is that we can look carefully at the world around us to discern God’s intent from the way things are designed, and then try to fulfill that intent. On the issue of slavery, natural law helpfully shows us that all people in the world are born the same way, develop the same way, have the same kind of moral and intellectual faculties, and (thanks to more recent science) share essentially the same DNA—thus there is no basis, from natural law, to give one race or group superiority over another: the natural world itself tells us that slavery is immoral.

Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law

Thomas Aquinas, the unquestioned leading figure in Western intellectual history from the entire Middle Ages, was a Dominican friar who studied and taught at the University of Paris in the 14th century. He was part of a movement of thinkers which re-acquired the insights of classical philosophers (especially Aristotle) and incorporated them into Christian theology. His greatest work, the Summa Theologica, is still the most impressive work of systematic theology ever written, covering every conceivable aspect about God, humanity, and the world, and even now a significant number of Christian scholars still believe that Aquinas’ theological system pretty much got everything right. One of his fundamental contributions was in the realm of natural theology, which enabled him to answer ethical questions like those above, to create arguments for the existence of God based solely on observation of the natural world, and to define the goal of human moral development (“virtue”).

The Natural Proof for the Existence of God

Aquinas wrote a number of powerful proofs for the existence of God. Unlike Anselm, whose argument rested only on the logic inherent in the idea of “God” itself, these arguments start from observations of the natural world that everyone can agree on: things like—“everything in motion had to be set in motion by an outside force,” and “everything that exists, exists because it was caused—in the natural world alone, we do not observe an effect without a cause.” Taking these observations, he devised a system which showed the absurdity of an “infinite regression.” That is to say, you can’t just have an infinite span of “caused events” in eternity past, nor an infinite series of things in motion, without having an “uncaused cause” or an “unmoved mover” somewhere back there who started it off. Logically, an infinite regression is an impossibility; otherwise we would not currently exist (because the logical idea of an infinite series before our existence means that, ultimately, that series will never actually reach the point where it produces us, or else it would not be infinite). But we do exist, therefore there must be an “uncaused cause.”

Natural and Supernatural Reasoning about Human Perfection: the Seven Virtues

Aquinas also gave us a helpful breakdown of the dynamics of human morality, the perfection of which are called “virtues.” He saw that there were some human virtues which could be deduced from reasoning about the natural world alone—these were the four “classical virtues” from Greek philosophy; and three virtues that we could not have discerned from nature, but were revealed to us in Christ.

Prudence, or wisdom—the practice of careful, thoughtful discernment about our actions and their consequences (i.e., “common sense,” which happens not to be very common, unfortunately)

Justice, or fairness – doing right to others (including honesty, give and take, keeping promises, etc.)

Temperance, or restraint (self-control) – reining in our appetites so they don’t rule over us; practicing moderation

Fortitude, or courage – the practice of confronting fear and uncertainty, and of sticking to it in hard situations

Faith – belief in God and obedience to him; more than just intellectual assent to a list of doctrines, true faith is a relational trust that should transform your life

Hope – setting our eyes on God’s ultimate victory and the triumph of his love over all other things; refraining from despair and refusing to give up

Love, or charity – Making God and others the center of our lives rather than pursuing our own self-interest; seeking the glory of God in worship and in our daily actions, and seeking the good of our neighbor in kindness and forgiveness. Not so much a “feeling” as an act of will: “Do not waste time wondering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did” (C. S. Lewis).

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

The Evangeliad (23:12-15)

Section 23:12-15 (corresponding to Matt. 15:39-16:4)

After the multitudes left, he went down,
And crossed in a boat to Magadan-town.
Then Pharisees, Sadducees came up to him,
Seeking to press a debate out of him.

"Come, show us a sign from heaven," they called.
"When you," Jesus said, "at evening behold
The heavens all crimson, then you predict
Fair weather ahead; the sign showed you this.

But when in the morning the sky is all red,
You know the day will be stormy," he said.
"You're scholars of all these signs of the skies,
But cannot interpret the signs of the times.

This generation, unfaithful and base,
Seeks for a sign and yet won't change its ways.
One sign will be given, if you can discern:
The sign of Jonah; look for it, and learn."

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Photo of the Week

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; 
For he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth.

- Psalm 96:11-13

Monday, November 29, 2021

Quote of the Week

And there's another country
I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her,
Most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies,
We may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart,
Her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently
Her shining bounds increase;
Her ways are ways of gentleness,
And all her paths are peace.

Cecil Spring Rice

Friday, November 26, 2021

Monday, November 22, 2021

No New Posts This Week (Except Friday)

I'm taking a little bit of a break from the blog over the Thanksgiving holiday, but I'll still post Friday's "Praying through the Word" video, since it's the first installment of the new liturgical year (Advent begins on Sunday!).

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Saturday Synaxis

Come, Holy Spirit, divine Creator, true source of light and fountain of wisdom! Pour forth your brilliance upon my dense intellect, dissipate the darkness which covers me, that of sin and of ignorance. Grant me a penetrating mind to understand, a retentive memory, method and ease in learning, the lucidity to comprehend, and abundant grace in expressing myself. Guide the beginning of my work, direct its progress, and bring it to successful completion. This I ask through Jesus Christ, true God and true man, living and reigning with you and the Father, forever and ever. Amen.

- Thomas Aquinas