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Reading the Five Ways 2

Reading the Five Ways
2. Who is Aquinas trying to convince?

The Five Ways do not appear right at the beginning of the Question ‘Whether there is a God’. They come in the third article, and it is important to read the other two on the way.

The first article argues that it is not self-evident that there is a God: we are not innately aware of God, and (against the claims of theologians like Anselm – of whom more another time) the existence of God does not follow simply from the definition of the word ‘God’. (Alongside these two denials, there is a third (1a.2.1 ad 3), of an argument about the undeniability of the existence of truth. This seems to me to be one of those many occasions when Aquinas has included an argument in an article simply as a make-weight, or as a jeu-d’esprit. I can’t see that either the posing or the refutation of this argument contributes materially to the article.)

The second article, working within the space opened up by the first, argues against those who say that the existence of God, not being self-evident, should simply be accepted on faith. No, says Aquinas, it is possible to demonstrate the existence of God. It is not directly evident that God exists, but it is possible to make it evident by looking at the world that God has made.

The third article then tries to fulfil the promise that this second article has made: it aims to show us how the existence of God is in fact demonstrable, by working from things we know about our world.

If these three articles are taken together, I don’t think it is quite right to say that the existence of God is at stake in Aquinas’ third article, even though that is how the third article itself is apparently framed. By this I simply mean that if Aquinas’ arguments in the Five Ways should fail (and if he should be unable to repair the failure) he would be failing to fulfil the promise made in his second article, and so would be thrown back on the idea that God’s existence can only be accepted by faith. After all, his argument in the second article is not that there was something wrong with accepting God’s existence on faith, simply that something more than that was possible and appropriate. (At one point in the second article he says, in the course of making a slightly different point, ‘there is nothing to stop a man accepting on faith some truth which he personally cannot demonstrate, even if that truth is such that demonstration could make it evident.’ I am suggesting that, for Aquinas, there is nothing to stop him accepting on faith the existence of God, should he fail to demonstrate it, even if that is because it is finally indemonstrable.)

If this is right, the Five Ways matter to Aquinas not, I think, because his belief in God rests upon them, but rather because a certain way of pursuing rational understanding of God rests upon them. To put it another way: Aquinas is not, I think, directly addressing those who think that the only possible way in which belief in God could properly arise is if the Five Ways (or some argument like them) work and so give reason to believe to people who should otherwise firmly reject the idea of God. He is addressing those who think that there is no need for such a demonstration, because they already believe in God and see no need for further supports.

I am not suggesting that the Five Ways are not meant as a real demonstration of the existence of God. That is, I am not denying that the Five Ways are an attempt at a demonstration that starts from the kind of knowledge of the world that might be shared by the other kind of addressee – a sceptic or atheist, for instance. Nevertheless, I am suggesting that if we are to extract from the Five Ways an argument addressed to a sceptic or atheist, we will have to do some translating. That’s going to have to remain as a cryptic comment for now, but I promise I will unpack it further when the time comes.

I think, by the way, that we can already give an initial answer to one of the questions I posed in the last section, about the precise sense in which Aquinas’ argument begins with this material on God’s existence. Aquinas’ central intention in these three artices is, I think, to show how a bridge can be built from knowledge of our world to knowledge of God; that’s what it means to show that God’s existence is demonstrable. Much of the rest of the Summa then consists of driving all sorts of freight over that bridge, in both directions (remember once again Aquinas’ overall purpose for the Summa is to ‘make God known … as the beginning and end of all things.) If this is right then the Five Ways are foundational to his whole project not in the sense that without them he would have to give up on Christian faith, nor in the sense that they everything that follows is unpacked directly from this starting point, but in the sense that the failure of this bridge would mean that the Summa would have to take an utterly different form.

Reading the Five Ways

Okay: when I said that I was going to devote one post to Aquinas, I may have been underestimating…

Reading the Five Ways
1. Putting the Ways in context

In order to understand the Five Ways, one needs to pay attention to their context in Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. Many misreadings of Aquinas’ argument (and, in particular, many drastic oversimplifications of it) arise from extracting his presentation from the wider ‘Question’ (i.e., ordered discussion of a particular topic) of which it is a part. The discussion of the Five Ways forms the body of one ‘article’, but there are three such articles in the Question as a whole. And that Question is itself one of a set of three that together make up a significant sub-division of the Summa as a whole. (See the diagram below.)

So, when introducing this material, Aquinas reminds us that the overall purpose of the Summa Theologiae is to ‘make God known, not only as he is in himself, but as the beginning and end of all things…’. He then tells us that the first main topic that must be examined as he pursues this purpose is ‘the nature of God’, and that there are three questions to be asked: whether there is a God (an Deus sit), what manner of being God is, and what we can say about God’s knowledge, will and power.

The first of these questions, ‘Whether there is a God’, is itself divided into three sub-questions (‘articles’): Whether it is self-evident that God exists, whether it can be made evident, and (finally) whether God exists. It is best not to skip to the third of these articles straight away, because just as the three larger questions belong together, so too do these three articles only really make sense together.

Two points are worth bearing in mind at this point. First, despite Aquinas declaration that the purpose of the Summa is to ‘make God known, not only as he is in himself, but as the beginning and end of all things…’, you should resist the temptation to think that this material (the initial block of three Questions) contributes simply to the ‘God … as he is in himself’ aspect of that purpose, and that we might expect only at some later point to turn to God ‘as the beginning and end of all things’. As we shall see, things are not so straightforward.

Second, you should be beware of making any hasty assumption about the way in which this material on ‘the nature of God’, and more specifically on the question of God’s existence, comes ‘first’ in Aquinas’ presentation. One kind of interpreter might say that this is simply a convenient arrangement, a presentational or pedagogic device. The topic in question is, this kind of interpreter might say, simply one of the questions that has come up in theological discussion, and Aquinas had to put it somewhere once he had decided to address it. Another kind of interpreter, however, might say that this Question establishes the starting point from which the rest of the content of the Summa is deduced or inferred, such that the rest of the Summa is simply an unpacking of the implications of this first point. Far from deciding to put this Question first out of convenience, this second kind of interpreter would say that this Question simply had to come first. (After all, Aquinas does say in the sed contra of 1a.1.2 that ‘one must be able to demonstrate that God exists … for knowing whether a thing exists is the first step towards understanding it.’) Later on, I will be suggesting my own interpretation, though I don’t mind telling you now that I will be leaning some way towards this second camp of interpreters, without actually joining them.



The Summa
‘God … as the beginning
and end of all things’


Question 1

Part 1

God’s nature

Question 2
Is there a God?

Article 1
Is God’s existence self-evident?

Article 2
Can God’s existence be demonstrated

Article 3

Questions 3–13
What manner of being is God?

Question 4–26
God’s knowledge, will and power

God’s triune life
Questions 27–43

God as creator

Questions 44–119

Part 2
Our journey to God

Part 3

NB – all quotations are from the 1960s Dominican translation, now reissued by CUP.