Review of The Failure of Natural Theology

The Failure of Natural Theology book cover

I have serious concerns about the Thomistic revival that seems to be sweeping Evangelicalism in recent years, including many Reformed pastors and scholars (see my reviews of Carter, Barrett, and Dolezal). In The Failure of Natural Theology, Jeffery Johnson addresses one significant issue raised by the theology of Thomas Aquinas. I am thankful to have received a review copy from the author. Johnson argues that the doctrine of divine “immobility” stands at the centre of Aquinas synthesis of Natural and Revealed theologies. In addition to arguing that “natural theology” is itself a flawed project, Johnson claims that divine immobility is not necessarily entailed by the arguments from which Aquinas (and Aristotle before him) derived the doctrine; moreover, divine immobility stands in tension with God’s self-revelation in Scripture. Along the way, Johnson identifies many more troublesome aspects of Aquinas’s teaching (arguing in an appendix that Aquinas cannot be easily accommodated within Protestantism) and argues for the significance of the doctrine of the Trinity for properly understanding God’s world. By concluding with a reflection on the Trinity, Johnson underscores his primary point, that Aquinas and those who follow him go wrong by looking to “the wisdom of man” instead of Scripture for their theology, and points toward his own hope for the book, “to drive us to divine revelation in our understanding of the nature of God” (6).

Summary

The Failure of Natural Theology is divided into nine chapters, followed by an appendix. The first two chapters address methodological errors in Aquinas’s project. Chapter 1 identifies a general problem of Natural Theology, in sum, that “If we don’t start with the God of divine revelation, as Calvin suggested, we will not arrive to the God of divine revelation” (29). Johnson rightly distinguishes between natural revelation, such as was taught by Calvin, and natural theology. The former is characterised by its infallibility, continuous reality, immediacy, efficacy, and universality. Natural theology, as the philosophical knowledge of God derived from experience and reason, is none of these things (Cf. 18-20).  In Chapter 2, Johnson then considers Aquinas’ theological method. For Aquinas, natural theology and revelation or complementary perspectives on truth; they provide different ways for getting at the same thing, the right understanding of God. Johnson argues that Aquinas asserted three disciplines that arrive at the knowledge of God, “(1) natural theology/philosophy—based on reason, (2) theology—based on faith, (3) philosophical theology—based on faith and reason” (36). Against some Protestant misunderstandings, Johnson follows Arvin Vos with the clarification,

Because Aquinas believed that philosophy and theology overlapped in their doctrine of God’s essence, his doctrine of God is not necessar­ily a two-story structure with the lower level rooted in philosophy and the upper level rooted in Scripture. It’s not that simple to say Aquinas was seeking to place theology on the foundation of philosophy. (42)

Johnson concludes chapter 2 with the claim that philosophy should not be taken as a complementary route to knowledge of God.

The next two chapters address the natural theologies of Aristotle (Chapter 3) and Pseudo-Dionysius (Chapter 4). Johnson does a fine job presenting the thought of these two main influences on Aquinas. Throughout both chapters, Johnson seeks to highlight the way the thought of these thinkers is antithetical to the God revealed in the Bible. Chapter 5 then illustrates how both Aristotle and Pseudo-Dionysius are integrated into Aquinas’ theology, how their distinct emphases on God and the knowledge of God come together to shape Aquinas’ theology.

In Chapters 6-9, Johnson addresses critical themes in Aquinas’ thought. Johnson perceives the doctrine of “immobility” stands at the heart of Thomas’ theology. Divine immobility is a particular interpretation of immutability (which Johnson distinguishes from immobility) wherein God is said to be unable to act or contemplate any object other than himself. Thus, according to divine immobility, any activity of God must be part of one eternal, unchanging act which God has never begun or ceased performing, and differences perceived in God’s actions outside of himself must be attributed to the creature, not to God himself (116-117). In Chapter 6, Johnson argues that divine immobility is not a necessary conclusion to Thomas’s first proof and that it stands in tension with his second proof (as recognised by Aristotle, who denied that God could be the efficient cause of the universe). Johnson raises several other apt criticisms of the doctrine in this chapter and continues to do so in Chapter 7, which raises theological issues created by the doctrine of immobility. Chapter 8 then argues that the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity reconciles the tensions in Aristotle and Aquinas theology between stability and unity, or the one, and change and multiplicity, or the many. Chapter 9 brings The Failure of Natural Theology to a close by arguing that Aquinas’ understanding of analogy can yield no knowledge of God and that, through Scripture, we can have accurate knowledge of God. In the appendix, Johnson argues that various aspects of Aquinas’ theology and methodology set him at odds with the Protestant theology, so we should not attempt to baptise him as such.

Evaluation

In evaluation, I believe that Johnson is right to define immobility as a central tenet of Aristotle and Aquinas’s theology, an extremely problematic one at that. Johnson’s arguments against the doctrine are accurate. The Failure of Natural Theology is part of a growing body of literature addressing the increasing influence of Thomas Aquinas within Protestant theology; I have serious concerns about this development myself and am thankful for Johnson’s thoughtful criticism.

If I had two choose problematic areas in the book, I would say the lack of explicit argument from Scripture and the endorsement of Christian Platonism. On the one hand, space limits the sorts of arguments Johnson can make, but I am always in favour of more Scripture as much as possible. I suspect this may limit the audience to those sympathetic with Johnson’s broader interpretation of Scripture and the doctrine of God. On the other hand, at various points throughout the book, Johnson seems to endorse Augustine’ Platonism (78-79), to suggest that the rejection of Plato’s ideas is a significant problem with Aristotle and so Aquinas’ theology (34, 78-79), and to suggest that Plato’s own methodology is sympathetic to that which Johnson endorses (53). Following this line of thought, his understanding of the Trinity and its solution to the problems with which Aquinas wrestled is expressed in terms of the abstract one and the concrete many, in terms of essence and particular. I don’t think it’s fair to align Platonic method with Christian approach from revelation: they both begin with the assumption that God is known, but they assume two very different pictures of the God that is known. Johnson’s conclusion about natural theology on page 166 is as true concerning Plato as it is concerning Aristotle,

Philosophy is unable to explain not only a temporal universe and the Trinitarian diversity within the Godhead but also the true nature of God’s oneness. Philosophy is good at raising questions but not so good at answering them, because it does not have access to the necessary data (i.e., the Trinity) needed to construct a consistent worldview.

Indeed, Aristotle and Plato are far more aligned than they are in opposition. As I have argued elsewhere (e.g. The Gift of Seeing), I think the Biblical testimony to God requires a reconstruction of the whole “one and the many” dilemma; as such, it may be better to see the Trinity not as the solution to the problem of “the one and the many” but the eradication of it. Nevertheless, Johnson has helped us see more clearly why Thomas Aquinas is a hindrance to the right knowledge of God as revealed in Scripture, not an aid—let alone essential reading (as some recent books would have it).

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