Worst Theological Problem Meme: Thomas Aquinas

Halden originally tagged me with this meme many months ago. The task is to identify the worst theological problem of one of your favorite theologians. In my own contribution to this meme, I will be a bit more provocative and pick Thomas Aquinas, rather than my usual go-to theologians, Karl Barth and Eberhard Jüngel.

Theologian: Thomas Aquinas

Problem: The Immutability of God

Explanation: The Angelic Doctor writes the following on divine immutability:
From what precedes (cf. Mal. 3:6), it is shown that God is altogether immutable. First, because it was shown above that there is some first being, whom we call God; and that this first being must be pure act, without the admixture of any potentiality, for the reason that, absolutely, potentiality is posterior to act. Now everything which is in any way changed, is in some way in potentiality. Hence it is evident that it is impossible for God to be in any way changeable. Secondly, because everything which is moved, remains as it was in part, and passes away in part . . . thus in everything which is moved, there is some kind of composition to be found. But it has been shown above that in God there is no composition, for He is altogether simple. Hence it is manifest that God cannot be moved. Thirdly, because everything which is moved acquires something by its movement, and attains to what it had not attained previously. But since God is infinite, comprehending in Himself all the plenitude of perfection of all being, He cannot acquire anything new, nor extend Himself to anything whereto He was not extended previously. Hence movement in no way belongs to Him. (ST 1a.9.1)
This passage illustrates precisely what is problematic about classical metaphysical thought. The three arguments Thomas brings forward in defense of immutability are based on abstractions. The first (and strongest) argument defines what must be true of God based on what must be true of the “first being,” which is simply an abstract concept which Thomas then identifies as the God of biblical revelation. The movement is not from the God we concretely meet in Scripture to the “first being,” but rather from the “first being” to God. The second and third arguments argue on the basis of “everything that moves.” Because all moving objects function in a certain way, it follows that God is not an object that moves. Again, the movement is from abstraction to concretion—moreover, from created earthly abstractions to an uncreated transcendent concretion. In the end, metaphysics ends by swallowing up God in abstraction rather than elucidating the concrete nature of God in accordance with God’s revelation.

Perhaps the most telling failure in Thomas’ presentation of divine immutability is the inability of this immutable God to do anything new. Because God is actus purus, there is no conceivable sense in which God can do a new thing. In other words, what’s done is done. God is static and immovable, and no new event can ever occur. This of course is hard to square with the biblical narrative; one has to assume that the experience of newness in relation to God is simply a phenomenological illusion. All of this comes to a head when we reach Jesus Christ. How is the incarnation possible? Was God always incarnate? Is the incarnation also just a phenomenological illusion? And what about the eschaton? How can we hope for a new heavens and new earth? I do not see a way for Thomas to adequately answer these questions on the basis of divine immutability, at least as he has conceived it here.

Thomas is without question one of the greatest (if not the greatest) theologian who has ever lived, but he is plagued by problems that the Christian witness must answer if it is to be credible. In the end, the greatest problem with Thomas’ immutable God is that one cannot worship such a being. One cannot worship a static entity which has no movement, no relational identity, no history. That does not mean we need to throw out the doctrine of divine immutability. Certainly, the triune God is the same yesterday and today and forever, but God is the same as the one who is immutably faithful to the covenant of grace, as the God who from eternity past has willed to be God for us in Jesus Christ, as the God who will one day make all things new (Rev. 21:5).


Jon said…
Surely though, although you say you're avoiding Barth and Jungel, you are actually highlighting an area of theological discussion (namely the value of metaphysics in talking/thinking of God) which is very much to the fore of Jungel and Barth's thought?

Maybe you can't think of anything to criticise about them and so you actually refer to them negatively through St Tom?

a.chapin said…
Yes, great post. The problem with metaphysics it that it is implicitly an exercise of how the mind works and how the concepts we have built interrelate in our own semantic networks. But the actual referents may be quite different.

This is a good example of what makes me nuts - theologians quoting maxims, like 'God is immutable.' I like your challenge of why such a maxim is probably unintelligible, and I’m for throwing it out altogether. It wouldn’t be showing disrespect to Aquinas; the modern day theologian should be challenged to come up with a better (more robust, more delicate, more complete) description of God.

So, instead of ‘immutable’ maybe some better words are ‘ever-faithful, trustworthy, entirely benevolent….’

There’s a new survey: list the common ‘characteristics’ of God (Immutable, Omnipotent, Omniscient, etc) and let’s find some better words. I think I’d also vote to toss out ‘Omniscient’; it’s contrary to the relational nature of God wherein to delight in the company of one of His creations, in some way He has to set aside ‘knowing everything.’ What fun is it to tell a joke to someone who’s heard them all?
D.W. Congdon said…

Nice point. Actually, I meant to originally post on Jüngel and how his lack of a material resurrection as a unique event distinct from the crucifixion is rather problematic. But this has been discussed elsewhere, and I don't think it's really a huge problem. Jüngel is better than Bultmann, and while he doesn't have the robust doctrine of resurrection that Barth does, I'm not really concerned about it.

The metaphysical notion of God as entirely immutable and impassible, however, is a much more interesting problem.
Deep Furrows said…
I think immutability is a problem only when we forget that God is infinite. My experience (or Dante's) is that whatever God is in Himself, His infinity beckons us always toward a deeper, richer fullness of life.
a thomist said…
There are two scriptural citations in this post. The second states all things shall be made new. But before this, St. Thomas cites a quotation from the one who will make all things new, who tells us something about himself: "I am the Lord and I change not" (Mal 3:6).

Again, If we have a difficulty is with divine immutability, we have a problem with Scripture first: as when we are told that in the covenant with Abraham God willed "to show the heirs of the promise the immutability of his counsel (Heb 6:17)"

Immutability is simply the counterpart of eternity, and we can't deny one without denying the other. This mutable divine nature that you suggest is a temporal being- a creature.
thomism said…
One last point. There are some key things that Aquinas says about "purus actus" that are pertinent here:

1.) Aquinas frequently repeats the axiom "everything is acting insofar as it is in act".

2.) In De Potentia Aquinas begins his discussion of the Trinity by pointing out "it is the nature of act to communicate itself". A similar quotation is in his Commentary on the Sentences.

3.) Aquinas repeatedly insists that act is perfection, and perfection act. No perfection can be "new" to God because he already has them all in a superabundant way. All perfections. even the perfection of out own selves, have already existed in God supereminently from the beginning.

4.) Aquinas, following Aristotle, says that as something is in act, so it is operating. Pure act is in fact the opposite of static existence, and is absolutely opposed to it.

D.W. Congdon said…
Points about Thomas are well taken. I am certainly no Thomist, nor do I have a desire to be, so I won't argue the points.

One thing must be clarified: my beef is not with immutability per se, but with the abstract metaphysical immutability posited by Aristotle and "Christianized" by Thomas. Verses like "I am the Lord and I change not" do not change the point. The immutability of the Lord throughout the Bible is God's unchanging faithfulness to the covenant. It has nothing to do with a God who is incapable of doing anything new.

I accept the point about actus purus being a dynamic understanding of God. I actually don't really have an issue with this term so much as how I see it employed in Thomas. I think, again, we need to affirm that God's being is in act, but at the same time affirm that the eternal act of God is an act of becoming -- a triune being-in-becoming that does allow something new, viz. the event of Jesus Christ.
a thomist said…
You say:

"I accept the point about actus purus being a dynamic understanding of God. I actually don't really have an issue with this term so much as how I see it employed in Thomas"

My points 1-4 are showing you how the term is employed by St. Thomas. These two sentences are incompatible.

For St. Thomas sand Aristotle, God's immobility is not privative, that is denying him something new, but negative, that is, transcending all change and yet containing all perfection within himself. This is why Aristotle, after proving that some first immobile mover exists, immediately concludes that this being contains all perfection and goodness within himself, and is, as it were, the one in whom all things live and move and have their being (for the very subect of Book XII of the Metaphysics is to show the source of all being).
D.W. Congdon said…
I don't think you understand. My problem is not actus purus, but rather actus purus defined metaphysically -- i.e., abstractly. The same goes for the theological term "immutability." It's not the term itself that I have a problem with, but the way we define it.

The entire problem with abstract metaphysics is that these terms are defined apart from and before the history of God's relations with humanity in the covenant of grace. In other words, they are defined apart from God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ. This is a fundamental error. If we are going to speak of God as actus purus, it can only be in terms of how we see God in Jesus Christ. If we are going to speak of divine immutability, it can only be in terms of God's eternal faithfulness to humanity in Jesus Christ.
Brandon said…
The entire problem with abstract metaphysics is that these terms are defined apart from and before the history of God's relations with humanity in the covenant of grace.

Whatever else may be said, I don't think this is quite a fair criticism in this case. After all, it's clear from ST 1.1.1 that the whole discussion presupposes the faith that comes through Christ; and the discussion of immutability is introduced by a sed contra from Scripture and the very next article shows that the concern is with the distinction between Creator and creature. This moves into the article on eternity, where Aquinas relates divine immutability to what it means to receive eternal life; this relation makes an appearance again in discussions of angels; in discussing the virtues, he identifies immutability as the examplar in God of fortitude, thus connecting it directly to Christian morals (which requires fortitude even to martyrdom when necessary). No doubt Thomas could have done more along these lines than he did; but either 'abstract' is functioning in a funny way here or Aquinas's discussion is not actually abstract in the way you seem to be suggesting.