Reading the Five Ways 13

Reading the Five Ways
13. The Five Ways as Foundation

I said before that

Aquinas’ central intention in these three articles is … to show how a bridge can be built from knowledge of our world to knowledge of God…. Much of the rest of the Summa then consists of driving all sorts of freight over that bridge, in both directions…. [T]he 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.

I want to unpack that comment just a little.

It seems to me, as I have said, that the prime point of the Ways in context is not to demonstrate to the sceptic that God exists (though Aquinas certainly thinks that the arguments have the power to do that). Rather, they yield a grammar. Someone who has worked through the Ways (and through the material that immediately follows them) should start manipulating in new ways claims about God and God’s ways with the world.

(In fact, because (a) belief in God is not truly at stake for Aquinas in the Five Ways, and because (b) the Ways lead inevitably to discussion of the manner of God’s existence, there is a sense in which (as I once heard Nicholas Lash say), Aquinas asks ‘Does God exist’ in the same way that one might ask ‘Does the number 2 exist?’ – that is, he asks in what sense it is proper to use ‘existence’ language of God.)

The Ways should prevent the theologian from taking claims about God as if they were straightforwardly, unproblematically descriptive claims. After all, our language is fitted for talking about the world precisely in insofar as it is intelligible – insofar as it can be gripped by thought, brought under concepts, arranged, and spoken. The Ways, as I have been stressing, show that the strings of such intelligibility must be snipped in the case of God, even though it is that intelligibility that itself demands reference to God.

The Ways provide a pair of scissors for snipping the cords that tie our language about God to our grasp.

They also, however, set out the way in which language about God can work. As it were, having knocked over any language about God which tries to stand on its own two feet, they allow it to get up again provided that it can stand upon God’s creation – upon the patterns of God’s ways with the world. The Ways suggest a certain kind of decoding of theological language: claims about God will always be claims about God as the Mystery who has done this or that with the world – ‘God as the beginning and end of creatures.’ (For us, even talk about God’s immanent life is and can only be talk about the life of the God who creates, guides and saves the world.)

These ground rules do not say everything that needs to be said about God. They do not implicitly contain the whole content of theology. They do, however, provide rules by which any theological content can be stated, arranged, and manipulated – how it can form the basis of arguments, rather than remaining as the expostulations of unreasoning faith. The Ways are, for Aquinas, a necessary first step; they make theology possible.

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