I noted in my review that Johnson attributes to Aquinas the view that God “does not have any potencies.” (The quote is from p. 120 of his book.) I also noted that this is a misunderstanding of Aquinas. Aquinas distinguishes between “passive potency” (which is the capacity to undergo change) and “active potency” (which is the power to bring about effects in other things). What Aquinas actually holds is that God does not have any passive potencies, but is supreme in active potency. (Cf. Summa Theologiae .) Hence it is not correct to say that for Aquinas, God “does not have any potencies.” Aquinas insists that God does have active potency. It is only passive potency that he lacks.
Johnson claims that he did not overlook this distinction and that I have missed his point. But he did overlook it, and I did not miss his point. Note first that the words from p. 120 of Johnson’s book that I quoted were directed at something I had written in my book Scholastic Metaphysics, where I noted that for Scholastics like Aquinas, efficient causation is a matter of a thing exercising “its own active potencies or powers.” Johnson argues that Aquinas cannot coherently take God to be an efficient cause in this sense. The reason, he says in the full sentence from which I took the words quoted, is this: “How does God exercise his ‘own active potencies’ if he does not have any potencies?” Obviously, Johnson could think this a telling response to Aquinas only on the assumption that Aquinas denies that God has potencies of any kind – an assumption that is, again, false. Hence, I did not misunderstand Johnson. I simply called attention to what he himself explicitly said in his book.
Nor is his misunderstanding of Aquinas’s position confined to this one line. As I noted in my review, Johnson repeatedly attributes to Aquinas the thesis that God is “immobile.” Now, Aquinas certainly thinks that God is immutable in the sense that he does not undergo change, and that he is impassible in the sense that nothing external to him can have a causal influence on him. But Johnson says (at p. 137 of his book) that “immobility” involves something more than immutability and impassibility. Here’s one explanation by Johnson of what else it involves:
Thomas added to God’s simple and immutable nature an additional attribute not taught in the Scriptures: divine immobility.
Aquinas made the assumption that mobility – the willful exertion of power – is an essential characteristic of imperfection, finiteness, and temporality. Because God can’t be any of these things, mobility must not be in God. (p. 5)
So, according to Johnson, Aquinas denies that there is any “willful exertion of power” in God. And this is, again, simply false. Indeed, its falsehood is very easily demonstrated. For example, Aquinas says that “in God there is active power in the highest degree” (ST ); that God “wills… other things to be” (ST ); that “God is first in the order of agents” and that “his inclination to put in act what His intellect has conceived appertains to the will” so that “the will of God is the cause of things” (ST ); and so on. All of this entails precisely that God does willfully exert power, contrary to what Johnson claims is Aquinas’s view. Hence Aquinas denies that God is “immobile” in Johnson’s sense.
Moreover, Aquinas even allows that there is a sense in which God is moved. For example, he writes:
Since the will of God is His essence, it is not moved by another than itself, but by itself alone, in the same sense as understanding and willing are said to be movement. This is what Plato meant when he said that the first mover moves itself. (ST )
Of course, Aquinas is speaking here only of something remotely analogous to what we call “movement” in us, since it does not involve any actualization of passive potency nor any causal influence from without. But it further underlines how far Aquinas is from attributing to God “immobility” in Johnson’s sense.
Now, in his reply to me, Johnson insinuates that his point was simply to argue that, whatever Aquinas’s actual intentions, he is unable to reconcile an affirmation that God has active causal power with his Aristotelian approach to arguing for God’s existence and spelling out the divine nature. But there are two problems with this. First, Johnson does not merely say that Aquinas’s views imply that God lacks active causal power (even if Aquinas does not intend this result). Rather – and as we have just seen – Johnson claims that Aquinas himself actually holds that God lacks such power. Again, not only is that not true, but in fact Aquinas explicitly says the opposite. So, Johnson has badly misrepresented Aquinas’s position. Aquinas simply does not believe what Johnson claims he does.
Second, Johnson also does not establish that the Aristotelian premises Aquinas is working from actually entail divine “immobility.” Why does Johnson suppose otherwise? One reason appears to be that Aristotle himself conceived of God as moving the world as a final cause rather than as an efficient cause. And Johnson seems to think that anyone working from Aristotle’s premises must conclude that it is only as a final cause that God can move the world, that God cannot act as an efficient cause.
But that is certainly not Aquinas’s view, and Johnson does not show that it follows from anything Aquinas says. Johnson thinks he shows that this follows because he thinks that Aquinas claims that there is no potency of any kind in God and that God is “immobile.” But as we have just seen, not only does Aquinas not claim these things, in fact he holds the opposite. Hence he is not committed to the premises from which it would follow that God cannot act as an efficient cause.
Indeed, even Johnson allows that the “immobility” of the unmoved mover “is not a necessary conclusion” of Aquinas’s First Way (p. 116) and that it is “inconsistent” with the conception of God that results from the Second and Fifth Ways (pp. 118 and 130). Johnson thinks this shows that Aquinas’s position is inconsistent, but that would only be true if Aquinas had, in other places, explicitly or implicitly committed himself to divine “immobility.” And as we have seen, he does not do so. In his response to my review, Johnson writes:
Feser, however, didn’t attempt to answer this dilemma that I raised over and over in my book. I assume that he leapt over it because it can’t be answered. Thomas wasn’t able to reconcile this contradiction, and I am not convinced that anyone is able to do so.
End quote. But Johnson misses the point. I didn’t attempt to “reconcile this contradiction” for the simple reason that there is no such contradiction in the first place. Johnson supposes otherwise only because he is attacking a straw man rather than Aquinas’s actual views.
Into the bargain, by the way, Johnson misunderstands Aquinas’s First Way. He writes that “Aquinas’s first proof... is based on God being the final cause of the universe” (p. 115). Now, as the reader of the First Way can easily verify from ST , there is no reference to final causality anywhere in it. Nor does anything Aquinas says there entail that the unmoved mover must move things by way of final causality rather than by way of efficient causality. In fact, the text of the argument implies precisely the opposite. To illustrate the kind of motion he has in mind, Aquinas refers to fire making wood hot and a hand causing a staff to move. And fire and hand function precisely as efficient causes. I would guess that Johnson is assuming that because (A) Aristotle presented a version of the argument from motion, and (B) Aristotle thought the unmoved mover moved the world as a final cause, then (C) Aquinas’s version of the argument from motion must be based on final causality. But (C) does not follow from (A) and (B).
I noted in my review that Johnson claims that by allowing for the sake of argument that the universe may not have had a temporal beginning, Aquinas makes God and the universe equally absolute. I also noted that this claim is false, since Aquinas’s view is that, even if the universe had had no beginning, it could not persist in being even for a moment without divine conserving causality. Hence even an infinitely old universe would depend for its being on God, who would be the sole absolute reality. In his response, Johnson claims that I have misrepresented him, writing: “Of course, Aquinas made this claim. I state this over and over in my book… No doubt, Aquinas believed that without God, there is no universe. I wonder how Feser could have missed me saying all of this in the book.”
Here is what Johnson actually said in his book. Commenting on Aquinas’s view that philosophical arguments cannot establish that the world had a temporal beginning, he wrote: “This is where Aquinas’s natural theology breaks down… Aristotelian metaphysics on its own merit cannot establish a temporal universe. And without a temporal universe, God ceases to be absolute” (pp. 124-25, emphasis added). He also says that “according to Aquinas, a temporal and unnecessary universe is not the logical conclusion of natural theology but, like the doctrine of the Trinity, is an article of faith that can only be received by divine authority” (p. 134).
So, according to Johnson, Aquinas holds that philosophy alone cannot establish that the universe is unnecessary – that is to say, that its existence is contingent upon some cause outside it. And only if that were indeed Aquinas’s view would his allowance for an infinitely old universe entail that the universe and God are equally absolute.
But of course, Aquinas does not think that philosophy is incapable of showing that the universe is unnecessary or contingent. On the contrary, he argues, on purely philosophical grounds, that anything whose essence and existence are distinct requires a cause, and is therefore contingent. And he argues, again on purely philosophical grounds, that this cause must be something whose essence is identical with its existence, and that such a cause would be unique. It follows – again, on purely philosophical grounds – that everything other than this cause depends for its existence upon it (so that the entire universe depends for its existence upon it). This holds true whether or not the universe had a beginning (which is why Aquinas thinks that establishing that the world depends for its existence on God does not require arguing for a temporal beginning).
This is, rather famously, one of the main themes of De Ente et Essentia, and it also appears in many other places in Aquinas’s works. For example, in the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas writes:
It must be said that every being in any way existing is from God. For whatever is found in anything by participation, must be caused in it by that to which it belongs essentially… [But] all beings apart from God are not their own being, but are beings by participation. Therefore it must be that all things which are diversified by the diverse participation of being, so as to be more or less perfect, are caused by one First Being, Who possesses being most perfectly…
From the fact that a thing has being by participation, it follows that it is caused. Hence such a being cannot be without being caused. (ST )
Notice that the argument here appeals to philosophical premises, not to special divine revelation. So, contrary to what Johnson says in his book, Aquinas does think that the contingency of the universe can be established via purely philosophical arguments, and thus he does think that it can be proved by such arguments that God alone is absolute, even though such arguments cannot in Aquinas’s view establish a temporal beginning of the universe.
Whether Johnson acknowledges elsewhere in his book that Aquinas takes the universe to depend on God is irrelevant. For the point is that Aquinas holds (contrary to what Johnson says in the passages I quoted above) that philosophy by itself, apart from special divine revelation, can establish this dependence of the world on God.
In my review of his book, I noted that Johnson claims that for Aquinas, we can only ever know a representation of God rather than God himself, and can only speak of God metaphorically or symbolically rather than literally. And I cited specific passages in which Aquinas actually says precisely the opposite of these claims – for example, passages in which he says that the blessed in heaven know the very essence of God, and in which he says that some terms do apply to God literally. As I pointed out, Johnson misses the latter point because he conflates metaphor and analogical language (which can be metaphorical but need not be).
In his response, Johnson does not deny that he is guilty of these errors – and they are very basic and serious errors of scholarship – even if he doesn’t quite admit it either. Instead he tries to change the subject. He notes, for example, that Aquinas holds that God’s attributes are identical, and suggests that this makes it difficult to understand what terms like “good” mean when applied to God. But there are several problems with this sort of move. First, it is completely irrelevant to the point I was making, viz. that Johnson misrepresented Aquinas’s views about theological language and what we can know about God.
Second, the reason Aquinas identifies the divine attributes is because he is committed to the doctrine of divine simplicity – to which Johnson is also committed. So, if the identity of the divine attributes that divine simplicity entails is a problem for Aquinas, it is also a problem for Johnson. To be sure, Johnson indicates at p. 164 of his book that he would not himself identify the divine attributes with one another. But what he needs to explain is how he can avoid doing so while at the same time affirming divine simplicity.
Third, Johnson raises this issue as if it were not something that Thomists and others have addressed many times in the large literature on divine simplicity. If Johnson doesn’t find what they have to say convincing, then fine, he is free to raise objections to it. But he seems not even to be aware of it.
Johnson also suggests that, even if Aquinas does affirm that some terms are applied to God literally, he was not “consistent with himself” insofar as he also denied that we can know God’s essence in this life, and instead have to represent God using terms we learn from their application to created things. But there is no inconsistency here at all, because the latter claim does not entail that no language about God is literal. Indeed, it doesn’t even imply that the inadequate ways we represent God using terms originally applied to created things are non-literal.
Again, Johnson clearly just doesn’t understand what Thomists mean when they talk about the analogical use of terms. That’s no sin – unless you’re going to make absurdly overconfident pronouncements about the “failure” of Aquinas’s philosophical theology, without first bothering to learn what Aquinas actually says.
In my review, I noted that Johnson took a remark of mine out of context (specifically, from my essay “Natural Theology Must Be Grounded in the Philosophy of Nature, Not in Natural Science,” which appears in my anthology Neo-Scholastic Essays). His misuse of the quote, I pointed out, rested on a failure to distinguish between science as it is generally understood today and philosophy of nature. In his response, Johnson suggests that he was not really saying anything different in substance from the point I was making in that essay. Really? Here is what he actually said in his book, in the context of commenting on Aquinas’s First Way:
[W]e cannot know for certain, based on Aquinas’s first proof, if God moves himself or not. Herman Bavinck placed his finger on the problem when he stated, “We have no right… to apply the law of causality to such a first cause, and that we therefore cannot say anything specific about it.” The cosmological argument collapses because it jumps from physics to metaphysics, from science to philosophy, without having any epistemological warrant for such a leap. It may appear that God’s nature can be derived from sense experience, from natural science, but such a conclusion is only a philosophical assumption. Even one of the leading Thomistic scholars of our day, Edward Feser, admits to this: “I do deny that arguments grounded in natural science alone can get you to classical theism.”
This is the breaking point. This is where the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas fails. (pp. 117-18)
I don’t think anyone who has read the essay of mine quoted from, or indeed who knows anything about my work on natural theology, could say with a straight face that I would agree that “the cosmological argument collapses,” or that we “cannot say anything specific” about the divine nature based on such an argument, or that such an argument cannot be grounded in “sense experience.” What I actually believe, of course, is that Aquinas’s First Way is a successful proof of God’s existence, that it is grounded in sense experience, and that following out its implications tells us much about the divine nature. True, I don’t think that natural science, as that is generally understood today, can provide the foundation of such an argument. But Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy of nature (the main principles of which were included as part of “science” as Aristotle and Aquinas understood it) can provide such foundations.
(Johnson says, in his response: “I would like to know what these broader principles are.” But if he really read the essay of mine he quoted from, and the other works of mine that he cites in his book, then he should already know the answer to that question. The principles in question include ideas like the Aristotelian theory of act and potency.)
Johnson also now claims that he was merely noting, in the passage I quote from his book, that you can’t get to everything the Bible says about the divine nature from science alone. But as you can see from the quote above, that is not what he said in that passage. What he actually said is something much stronger than that – that if science doesn’t provide a basis for the First Way, then Aquinas’s argument “collapses,” that his natural theology therefore “fails” altogether, that you “cannot say anything specific” about the divine nature on the basis of Aquinas’s argument, and so on. (And of course, no one ever claimed in the first place that the First Way gets you all the way to everything the Bible says about God. That’s a straw man.)
Revisiting the topic of the “immobility” that he says Aquinas attributes to God, Johnson writes: “Yes, Aquinas claimed God exerted willful power in creation. I cite him saying such statements. I never denied this about Aquinas.” But as I showed above, by citing specific passages, Johnson does in fact deny this in his book. (Johnson says: “I actually wonder if Feser read or merely skimmed my book.” Well, I did read it, every word. But I’m starting to wonder if Johnson read it!)
In my review, I noted that some of the things Johnson doesn’t like about Aquinas’s account of the Trinity derive, not from the thesis of divine “immobility,” but rather from the doctrine of divine simplicity, which Johnson himself accepts. In response, Johnson writes: “I go to great lengths to explain the difference between the two forms of simplicity – a simplicity rooted in philosophy (which I reject,) and a simplicity rooted in Scripture (which I accept).”
But this is no answer at all. For one thing, what matters in the present context is not the source of the idea of divine simplicity (whether philosophy or scripture) but rather the content of the idea. For it is the content of the doctrine of divine simplicity that some claim to be incompatible with Trinitarianism. For another thing, though Johnson would claim that the content he would give to the notion of divine simplicity is different from the content Aquinas would give to it, what we need to know is exactly how such a difference would make a difference to the specific issue at hand. For example, exactly why is Trinitarianism compatible with Johnson’s conception of simplicity if it is not compatible with Aquinas’s? (At least part of the answer, for Johnson, would be that Aquinas attaches the idea of “immobility,” in Johnson’s sense of the word, to divine simplicity. But I have already shown that Aquinas is not in fact committed to “immobility” in that sense.)
I noted in my review that Johnson merely asserts, without argument, that the Bible does not recognize the legitimacy of natural theology, but only of what he calls “natural revelation.” In his response, he essentially just repeats this question-begging assertion. He cites passages like the following:
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. (Psalms 19:1)
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20)
But there is (contrary to what Johnson alleges) nothing in such passages that entails that the knowledge of God we get from nature is entirely non-inferential and does not require argumentation.
Johnson admits that his assertion that “Plotinus didn’t leave behind any writings” (p. 75) was an error.
Johnson also admits that he made a “copy/paste error” when purporting to quote the text of the Second Way from Summa Theologiae I.2.3, at p. 101 of his book. Unfortunately, he also claims that “the substance of what was communicated by Aquinas was not compromised” by this error. But that is not the case. The passage Johnson wrongly presented as the text of the Second Way from the Summa contains the following lines:
If the series of efficient causes extends ad infinitum into the past, then there would be no things existing now. That is plainly false (i.e., there are things existing now that came about through efficient causes). Therefore efficient causes do not extend ad infinitum into the past.
End quote. Not only is this not what the Second Way says, it directly contradicts Aquinas’s view that it cannot be proved through philosophical arguments that accidentally ordered series of efficient causes do not extend ad infinitum into the past. (That is, after all, why, as we saw above, Aquinas thinks that philosophical arguments cannot prove that the universe had a beginning in time.) This is a pretty egregious error of scholarship.
Johnson sums up his response by emphasizing once again his main theme that “divine immobility is incompatible with the God of the Bible.” But as I have shown, Aquinas is not committed in the first place to “divine immobility” in Johnson’s sense. His main objection, like his other criticisms, is directed at a straw man.