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.

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