Saturday, April 28, 2018

SES podcast on classical theism

While at Southern Evangelical Seminary last week, I recorded a podcast with Adam Tucker on the topic of classical theism and theistic personalism.  You can listen to it here.

If and when the evening lecture I gave at SES is also posted online, I’ll let you know.  Stay tuned.


  1. Awesome. Dr. Feser you should have your own podcast.

  2. Dr Feser, you were my gateway drug to Aquinas, and I'll always be grateful!

    1. Same here. I ran across one of his columns via another site, got intrigued and decided to email him some questions. He was very gracious and pointed me in the right direction. I've since purchased Aquinas, The Last Superstition, and Scholastic Metaphysics. He was also kind enough to send me his analysis of existential inertia. I'm very grateful for his efforts!

  3. Ed,
    Your comments, both in this podcast and in your 5 Proofs book, on how the Reformers were classical theists are very important.
    I have recently being going through Turretin's book, Institutes of Elenctic Theology. This is 1600s Reformed Theology but it has much in common with Catholic Scholastic Theology. Its conception of God is that of classical theism, it reserves a legitimate place for natural theology, it preserves the nature-grace distinction, and discusses the difference between mysteries (which are above reason but not contrary to reason) and that which is logically incoherent.
    Aquinas is cited or mentioned some 119 times in the work, as well as various Church Fathers both East and West (Basil 46 times, Gregory Nazianzus 36 times, John of Damascus 20 times; John Chrysostom 65 times; and Augustine over 400 times). So this is a Systematic Theology that strives to incorporate Scripture, reason and tradition in a classical theistic vein.
    Its discussion of God includes strong defenses of the simplicity of God and the immutability of God. And I expect that several other Lutheran and Reformed systematic theologies in the Protestant Scholastic period were similar.
    Recent Systematic Theologies by Protestants in this general tradition include those by Tom Oden and Norman Geisler. Regrettably, they are outnumbered by Protestant Systematic Theologies that reflect theistic personalism in various ways.

    1. Timothy,

      Great comment. I agree with it, and I think it's significant that one of the most intellectual and systematic reformers (Turretin) and others took the view of classical theism.

      In the past, I believe Dr. Feser has recommended James Dolezal (Reformed Protestant) on divine simplicity. Also, Brian Davies quotes Paul Helm (Reformed Protestant) favorably in his work.

  4. JohnD,
    As it happens, about 10 days ago I recommended "God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God's Absoluteness" by Dolezal and Helm to a student who was into the "social trinitarianism" of Miroslav Volf. I also recommended that he read Oden, Aquinas, John of Damascus, and the Cappadocian Fathers.
    For both Aquinas and John of Damascus, the oneness of God is epistemologically prior to the threeness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but ontologically there is no priority either way.
    The Cappadocians may not emphasize the oneness of God as much as the Western tradition, but I find it highly unlikely that they would agree with the three distinct centers of consciousness that one finds in the trinitarianism of Zizioulas and his followers like Moltmann and Volf.

  5. Classic Theism Rulez!

    Theistic Personalism sucks more then anything that has sucked before!

    Classic Theism is like having an A&W Rootbeer from an A&W Drivein in upstate New York on a warm (but not too hot) summer day.

    Theistic Personalism is like being locked in a closet with nothing but Gravy from KFC to eat. Naturally you starve to death and the Gravy is all intact when they find your body.

    Better yet Theistic Personalism is your little brother not getting the hint and staying in the room to play video games while you want some alone time with your college girlfriend. It just sucks!

    Classic Theism is hold your newborn first born baby daughter......

    There I'm good.

  6. Theistic Personalism is like being locked in a closet with nothing but Gravy from KFC to eat. Naturally you starve to death and the Gravy is all intact when they find your body.

    ben Ya'kov, that's a real knee slapper, there. Thanks.

    I get the root beer idea, being from upstate NY (no, not the "upstate" that people from Queens mean, i.e. 45 miles north of Yonkers, but the REAL upstate), but I fear most of the benighted readers here will just say "?".

  7. The movement through the impersonal god of Aristotle to the mean that is Classical Theism to the contrary defect of Theistic Personalism is very interesting to me.

    Theism: You Are All Beneath Me (350 B.C.E.)

    Theism II: Just Right (1250)

    Theism III: This Time it's Personal According to an Erroneous Understanding of What it Means to be "Personal" for God (1940)

    1. ... I am sure Ed never implied that Thomas was responsible for Classic Theism, even if he thinks Thomism to be the correct philosophical account of it.

      On a more general classical theism related note does anyone here know of any good overviews of Non-Thomist accounts of Divine Simplicity? I hope to do a round up on it later this year (have Adams on Ockham and evoluting scholastic views, lots on Anselm, a little on Scotus and too much on Palamas)

    2. OA Police,

      I'm sure that you're right in your being sure. Neither would I dream of implying that. Classical theism was, however, just right during the mid-thirteenth century.

    3. Why precisely is Aristotle's God deemed to be impersonal?

    4. Why precisely is Aristotle's God deemed to be impersonal?

      Aristotle thought that God was pure thought thinking itself (so not just pure thought, but the very act of thought - thought that is thinking, and of itself). As such, it only ever thinks of itself (the highest thing), since thinking of other things (which are lower than it) would not be proper to it.

      Thus for Aristotle, God never thinks of us or of anything other than itself.

      For more information, and from the horse's mouth, see Metaphysics 12.

    5. Thank you for your reply!

      One's tempted to ask, in addition, how does not thinking of anything other than oneself make one impersonal? In other words, why "it" rather than "he"? Does rationality alone entail (or at least point to) socialness (this seems to be the route to the conclusion) in a substance of a rational nature, irrespective of being an animal?

      Anyways, this anonymous would like to call your attention to the reading of the equine account in question that belongs to St. Thomas. In his commentary the saint writes:

      2614. Now we must bear in mind that the Philosopher’s aim is to show that God does not understand something else but only himself, inasmuch as the thing understood is the perfection of the one understanding and of his activity, which is understanding. It is also evident that nothing else can be understood by God in such a way that it would be the perfection of His intellect. It does not follow, however, that all things different from Himself are not known by Him; for by understanding Himself He knows all other things.

      2615. This is made clear as follows. Since God is His own act of understanding and is the noblest and most powerful being, His act of understanding must be most perfect. Therefore He understands Himself most perfectly. Now the more perfectly a principle is known, the more perfectly is its effect known in it; for things derived from principles are contained in the power of their principle. Therefore, since the heavens and the whole of nature del pend on the first principle, which is God, God obviously knows all things by understanding Himself.

      2616. And the baseness of any object of knowledge does not lessen His dignity; for the actual understanding of anything more base is to be avoided only insofar as the intellect becomes absorbed in it, and when in actually understanding that thing the intellect is drawn away from the understanding of nobler things. For if in understanding some noblest object base things are also understood, the baseness of the things understood does not lessen the nobility of the act of understanding.

      So, according to Aquinas, here Aristotle is concerned with how, "through which form", God knows, rather than with which realities God has knowledge of.

      To this reader it seems that the saint's reading rather obviously recommends itself, as it is charitable and does no obvious violence to Stagirite's thought.

      If he were to hazard a guess about the reasons for decline of the correct understanding of divine personality, this anonymous would say that at least partially it probably has to do with the gradual working out in history, directly and indirectly, of the forceful denial (to wit, starting with the Reformers) or falling into obscurity of the nature/grace distinction and the ensuing confusion between the two respective relationships to God.
      Grace supplies a sort of equality necessary for friendship; without it, the latter is not possible. The alternative way of preserving the friendship, it seems, has been to modify one's conception of divinity.

  8. I have a question regarding God as Pure Act. Since all being, insofar as it is in act, has its actuality through (participation in) God (per Aquinas' 4th way), isn't it then necessary to say that nothing can truly (mind independently) be in act that has a logically contradictory opposite that can also be said to be in act? The reason would be that this would make God logically contradictory since he could actualize contradictory states.

    For example, one might say that the Devil is actually evil (and not good or potentially evil). However, upon further investigation, this is flawed because that would entail that God actualized the Devil's evilness. In order for that to happen, God would have to be both actually Good and Evil which is a contradiction.

    Is this thinking correct? Because I believe a thorough treatment of this subtlety may help answer many questions to the effect of, if God is Pure Act, then is he actually square and actually circle (which would imply that the notion of Pure Act is logically contradictory, because circularity necessarily excludes squareness). Therefore, to avoid this contradiction, we must say that squares and circles do not actually exist in mind independent reality, but are in fact mere artifacts the way a hammock is not actually a hammock but in reality a woven net of liana vines (as Dr. Feser would say). Therefore, we cannot say that the frisbee's circularity is actualized by God, but rather, its molecules (which do not have a logical opposite which could be in act) are in act insofar as they exist and have causal power and happen to be arranged circle-wise.

    Obviously then, as with determining essence, determining how exactly something is in act can get tricky. However, the important point to remember is that nothing can be in act that has a logical contrary which can also be in act.

    I appreciate your thoughts and comments.

    1. Scott,

      Great questions! There are a few things to note:

      First, a thing does not need to be in act in the same way as the actuality it causes in some object. To borrow an example from Feser, the fire actualizes the potential in a rubber ball to be gooey, but this does not mean that the fire is actually gooey (or even potentially gooey!). Like Dawkins before you, you've confused what Thomas is saying in the Fourth Way with something else. I think Feser addresses this in Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide. I think?

      Second, evil is, properly speaking, a privation of some good. I know we don't always speak that way, but metaphysically that's the way it is. Thus, while we might say that Jim is "actually blind", really what this means is that Jim lacks the power of sight. Likewise, when we say that Jim is an adulterer (being blind he gets a lot of sympathy), what we mean is that Jim lacks the virtues of charity and fidelity (among others). How does this apply to your question? Well, the only way that God could be actually "responsible" for some evil (if we use the word "responsible" very, very loosely), is if he allows some evil to exist, since, strictly speaking, he cannot cause an "actual evil" in the sense that he could an "actual good". But God allowing evil to exist does not contradict his goodness (here is where the question of theodicy comes in; also see the book of Job). Hence your problem is not really a problem at all.

      At base though, I think your questions all boil down to a basic confusion between act and potency and their relationship, and the confusing this with what the Fourth Way is saying. If you keep in mind that something does not need to be in act in the same way as the act it is causing in something else, I think your questions clear themselves up (also keep in mind what Thomas is speaking about in the Fourth Way: the gradation of being).

      As to your final point:
      the important point to remember is that nothing can be in act that has a logical contrary which can also be in act.
      Socrates is actually snub-nosed.
      I am actually not snub-nosed.
      That actual snub-noses exist and that actual not-snub-noses exist does not mean that God is both snub-nosed and not-snub-nosed or either one! Am I misreading you?

      All the best!

    2. One point: there is only contradiction in posing that the same thing is circular, and square, and in the same sense. There is no contradiction in THIS frisbee being round and THAT box being square. The kind of contradiction that is forbidden is the contradiction being present at the same time and place and in the same way. But circularity being here and squareness being there are not in the same place (or in the same thing).

      Also, there is no contradiction in the mind holding both circularity and squareness as known - such as when the mind asserts "what is circular is not square".

      Therefore, to avoid this contradiction, we must say that squares and circles do not actually exist in mind independent reality, but are in fact mere artifacts the way a hammock is not actually a hammock but in reality a woven net of liana vines (as Dr. Feser would say).

      This would conflict with everything Aristotle and Aquinas said about matter and form, and no, it does not solve the matter. Aristotelian hylemorphism asserts that circularity DOES exist in mind-independent reality, and squareness does also exist that way, in real things. His theory is called "realism" for a reason. When the water droplet's molecules "happen to be arranged circle-wose", then circularity is really present in it (as an accidental form, not as a substantial form), it is not just a mental name put on it by us. That way lies nominalism, which is contrary to everything Thomas was trying to show.

    3. Rene and Tony,

      Thank you for your responses. I think maybe I poorly communicated my case. Especially if you think I am arguing for nominalism, which I certainly am not doing. I am in fact arguing for realism but trying to put forward the dangers of speaking loosely when talking about an object's state of being in act. For example, all realists (that I know of) will concede that there are some things in this world that are only matters of convention. For example, Aquinas would concede that there is no such thing as a watch in mind-independent reality. Because the form "watch" is really something that we impose upon substantial forms that have no inherent "watchness". This is evident as we can use the sun or even a swinging chandelier as a watch of sorts. Similarly, a wrist watch is merely a collection of bits of metal and glass that are used by us as a watch (which is an artifact).

      My "evil" example was not put forward as a problem but really as an example of the neo-Platonic and Scholastic thinking that many things are loosely spoken of as being actual, whereas in reality they are either aspects (grasped by the mind) of non-being or a combination of act and potency, just as blindness is not really something actualized in Jim but is rather a word used to describe his lacking of actualization.

      I believe that this loose talk is why people fall into the trap of nominalism as well as thinking that if God is Pure Act, then he must actually be circle, square, black, white, here, there, etc. which in reality is to say that God must be all combinations of act and potency. Of course any Thomist would completely reject that as a misconception of what it is to be Pure Act. It is an objection I have heard before, however.


    4. ...continued

      Rene, you are right that Dr. Feser does address this somewhat in Aquinas. (However, I believe his treatment is more for the lay person and so certainly does not respond to every possible objection. I also think that Dr. Feser would not want to delve into these subtleties with a lay audience as it may simply cause confusion. This also may be why his language is not as technical and specific as everyone may like). You are also right that Dawkins gets it very wrong when he suggests that God must be "maximally smelly". I think this illustrates, however, how fast and loose talk about act and potency can lead to these kinds of misconceptions. I would agree that fire does not have to be "actually" gooey in order to actualize a rubber ball's gooeyness. But that is because, in reality, fire is actually hot (meaning the combusted molecules have a high degree of kinetic energy) and a gooey ball has gone from a potentially fluid to actually fluid (perhaps a soquid) state. Now fluidity is just what happens when the rubber molecules increase their kinetic energy (whose increase in energy was actualized by the energetic gas molecules in the fire). So we can see that the relation between fire and gooey-ness is much more one to one in mind independent reality than is obvious when we use our convenient loose language. Of course one could push the problem back even further and question whether kinetic energy is something that is truly actual (in and of itself).

      As for the circular frisbee, would it be more accurate to say that it has an elliptical accidental form (because upon a best fit analysis, we might find that it is better modeled by an ever-so-slight ellipse)? I think that can cause problems when we make the statement, this frisbee is ACTUALLY circular. In reality, it is ACTUALLY extended particles (its true form) that approach circularity (according to our minds) but never attain circularity due to the imperfection of matter. This isn't to say it doesn't have a real form, only that it's true form may be more complicated than we initially assume.

      This brings us to the question of mathematical objects and logical contradiction. Just as evil cannot truly exist (as something actual) because we already know that its logical opposite, goodness, exists, can other things exist (as being truly actual) if they have logical contraries? I would agree with Tony that the mind can hold the form of circularity and squareness when it states that circularity is not squareness. But I believe that is because circularity and squareness exist in an immaterial way in the mind (not extended through actual space).

      So, I guess what I'm getting at is that the immateriality of form plays a big part in answering these kinds of objections where one conflates act or form with a combination of act and potency or a combination of form and matter. I think it also goes to show the danger of conflating form with three-dimensional shape (which is a form-matter composite).

      Please let me know your thoughts.

  9. I'm just here to say that Ed has been mentioned in a quote featuring in the "debunking christianity" blog (horrible, anti-intellectual place; I admit sometimes visit it because I find their irrational diatribes morbidly entertaining) by some dude called "Michael Williams":

    "That determinism rules out reasoning is one of the most annoying arguments ever. It's just thrown out there as if it's obvious (kind of like "you need free will to love"). Even Edward Feser in his book Five Proofs of the Existence of God says, "Human beings are rational animals and for that reason capable of such free action."

    Now, regardless of the merits of that particular argument for free will (some people say if we don't have free will then reasoning is kind of pointless since we are determined in our beliefs anyway), I don't think that's what Feser said. I think he was saying that because we are rational animals, we therefore have free will (maybe because Aquinas argues that rational animals can apprehend any number of objects under the guise of a single universal, so no particular action would be determined by reason, etc). I just post here because I can't post there, anyway.

  10. Classical Theism is certainly much better than Theistic Personalism, however, it is still not good enough. The Catholic Church teaches that God is incomprehensible, i.e. does not fall under concepts (Dei Filius). If you take that seriously, it seems to be highly questionable whether one can use God as an argument in a process of reasoning or to conceive of God as the "ultimate explainer". God is greater than everything we can think of. We can only identify the world as not being able to exist without God and pointing in a unilateral way towards a reality that does not fall under concepts: God and the world are not parts of an overall system.


  11. General criteria for what constitutes a person or what is personal is the core issue, prior to the issue of theism, although atheism has that lingering issue of treating reason as a mind God, and assumes personhood/personalness just like the theists.

    The question arises as to why personhood is an issue in the first place, which is basically the same question I would address to people like Chalmers about consciousness. Why does it matter?

    Another angle to pursue would be: what makes something IMpersonal?

  12. Coming across videos like this after reading Aquinas and TLS just makes me want to pull my hair out (as well as the Aquinas one before it).