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Aquinas & God's Relation to Creatures

In Question 13 of the First Part of the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas makes a statement that has become a favorite punching bag among those seeking to discard or radically revise the traditional Christian doctrine of God. It is often quoted by process theologians, open theists, and others who wish to show that Thomas was grossly out of touch with the biblical doctrine of God. Thomas's comment reads as follows:

"Since therefore God is outside the whole order of creation, and all creatures are ordered to Him, and not conversely, it is manifest that creatures are really related to God Himself; whereas in God there is no real relation to creatures, but a relation only in idea, inasmuch as creatures are referred to Him" (Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 13, art 7).

The problem is obvious, isn't it? The Bible calls God our Father. We are His adopted children. The Bible says our relationship with Him is real. Thomas says it isn't. Which one are you going to believe? Thomas says our relationship with God is only an idea, a figment of the imagination. How can we possibly hold to the traditional Christian doctrine of God if it includes such blatantly unbiblical ideas as this?

Once this "obvious" mistake of Thomas is shown, then the process theologians, open theists, and other revisionists will often point out that the Protestant Reformers and their confessions never fully ridded themselves of this Thomistic poison. Sometimes Calvin is let off the hook, but his Reformed scholastic successors are usually deemed guilty as charged because they maintained the same underlying metaphysical views that were held by Thomas. The result is the conclusion by many modern theologians that the traditional Christian doctrine of God obviously needs to be rejected outright or else radically overhauled.

It's not difficult to understand why Thomas's words, cited above, cause such a reaction--even among otherwise conservative evangelical theologians. When we read them with our own contemporary understanding of the vocabulary he uses, it strikes us as wildly unbiblical. The problem is that we do not understand that Thomas was using these terms in a very precise and technical sense, and we do not understand what that technical sense is. We fail to understand his words as he defined and used them, and that failure leads us to condemn him for teaching almost precisely the opposite of what he is actually saying.

Straw man arguments are fallacious arguments, and in order to avoid such arguments, it is important to accurately state the position of an author before making any attempt to criticize or refute his or her views. Thomas's views concerning God's relation to creatures may be wrong, but we cannot effectively criticize it if we do not know what it actually is. We cannot simply read his words through our modern lenses and assume we know what he meant. We need to take a step back and attempt to read him on his own terms first. We have to understand what he said before we can determine whether what he said is right or wrong.

When we read what Thomas says within his own context, his statement is seen to articulate and defend some very important biblical ideas. Contrary to what it looks like when read through modern lenses, his statement actually defends the reality of the relationship between God and His creatures that his critics assume he is denying. Furthermore, it defends the biblical truth that God and His creatures do not belong to the same order of being. In other words, it defends the Creator-creature distinction. It also defends the idea that God is not ontologically dependent upon His creatures, while His creatures are ontologically dependent upon Him. When understood in context, his statement simultaneously defends both the transcendence and immanence of God. Finally, when understood in context, his statement allows to grasp to some degree how certain names such as "Creator," names that point to the existence of a relation with creatures, can be truthfully predicated of God without denying His immutability.

In order to understand how his teaching on relations does this, one has to take the time to learn what he meant by real relations and logical relations (or relations "in idea"). One will have to understand the differences among relationships that are merely "in idea" in two things, relationships that are real in two things, and relationships that are real in one thing and "in idea" in the other thing (a mixed relation). One will have to understand that a relationship that is real in two things is the kind of relationship that can exist only when both things belong to the same order of being (e.g., two physical things). On the other hand, a relationship that is real in one thing and "in idea" in the other thing is the kind of relationship that can exist between two things belonging to different orders of being (e.g., a physical thing and knowledge of that physical thing).

In short, whenever you see someone use Thomas's quote to assert or imply that the traditional Christian doctrine of God and His attributes needs to be rejected or revised because the traditional doctrine obviously denies what the Bible clearly teaches, you can rest assured that someone did not do their homework.


Image by David Mark from Pixabay


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