Monday, July 4, 2011

Consequences of the Primacy of Conscience

An interesting exchange between a Presbyterian and some Catholics occurred recently. A Catholic mentioned in passing that Protestants hold to the primacy of the individual conscience. The Presbyterian indignantly denied holding this view, and apparently did not think that it is affirmed by any Reformed doctrinal standard. Now this gentleman is generally well informed (based upon what I have seen), so I presume this was a simple case of having forgotten what his own standards say.

I suspect (but I do not know for a fact) that part of what motivated his strong objection to the claim is that he realizes the primacy of individual conscience reduces to “solo scriptura” immediately, and he claims to hold to “sola scriptura.” In the end, the two boil down to the same thing anyway, as was demonstrated here, but at least some Protestants (notably the Reformed) object to this (although in my opinion Bryan Cross and Neal Judisch’s argument remains unanswered so far).

Setting that aside for the moment, though, his challenge to demonstrate the claim from the Reformed standards was fairly quickly answered:

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also. [source]

In short: according to the Westminster Confession, no man has any standing to require anyone to believe anything that isn’t taught in the Bible. Ah, but there is the rub: who is to say what is taught in the Bible? The same document also insists that

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

According to the WCF no ecclesial body has any standing to so declare what Scripture teaches as to require assent by anyone, because the supreme court for all “controversies of religion” has but one Judge, and that is God Himself. So it seems pretty clear that primacy of the individual conscience (when it comes to discerning what truth the Bible teaches) is the definitive teaching of the WCF: a man is answerable to God alone. The claim that primacy of individual conscience is a “Protestant dogma” is not a Catholic invention.

When I was in the PCA, this principle was unquestionably enforced (so to speak). Subscription to the Confession was not required for membership in the denomination; it was only required of men who held office (and even they are not obliged to hold to every jot and tittle it contains). If one isn’t obliged to agree with the WCF at all for church membership, and if even officers aren’t answerable for everything it contains, it is pretty clear that the denomination affirms primacy of individual conscience and does not seek to compel assent.

More importantly, if a Protestant denies the primacy of individual conscience he is effectively undercutting the Reformers. Luther famously appealed to conscience over against the authority of the Church; for a Protestant to deny the legitimacy of such an appeal is to reduce Luther from a reformer to a revolutionary who refused to accept licit authority. It would be to deny what is actually the sine qua non of the Reformation.

A third consequence of this primacy of individual conscience is that it pretty well obliterates any distinction between “solo scriptura” and “sola scriptura.” For if no man and no ecclesial body has any authority to compel assent to some doctrine or other (as the WCF asserts), then any claim for the legitimacy of “subordinate and derivative” authority amounts to nothing but a fog machine.

Now it might be asserted that the WCF doesn’t preclude compelled assent in literally every case, but rather only in cases having to do with “doctrines and commandments of men” that are contradict the Bible. But the assertion begs the question, because what is at issue in such situations is precisely what the Bible actually teaches. Suppose a PCA officer announces that he does not believe in predestination because he no longer believes that it is taught in the Bible. In his eyes, any attempt by his session to compel his assent to the doctrine of predestination would contradict what the WCF teaches about liberty of conscience.

The end result is an inescapable dilemma: either the Protestant must claim the primacy of individual conscience and that principle’s concomitant doctrinal and denominational chaos, or he must accept the right of ecclesial authority to declare the content of the Faith (which inescapably demolishes any pretended legitimacy of the Reformation). There aren’t any other alternatives.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Aquinas, Descartes, and Schaeffer continued

I have written a few posts now on this subject, and since it is apparently a topic of persistent interest (judging from what Blogger says about the traffic on The Supplement) it seems worthwhile from time to time to revisit it. This is not an area of active research for me, and I am pretty sure that it never will be. Nevertheless from time to time I come across information that seems relevant to it, and so I think it is useful to add it here for the sake of completeness.

In his monumental work The Degrees of Knowledge, Jacques Maritain discusses Descartes’ epistemological mistake (one which he says has been retained by Descartes’ philosophical descendants):
[Modern idealism] is characterized, truth to tell, by a radical misunderstanding of the true nature of the idea and of the intentional function of knowledge, thenceforth conceived upon the pattern of events in the material order. Descartes clearly saw that the known object is known within thought; his capital error was to have separated the object from the thing, believing as he did that the object is in thought, not as an intelligible entity rendered present to the mind through an immaterial form—and with which the mind is intentionally identified—but as an imprint stamped on wax. Henceforth, the intentional function disappears; the known object becomes something of thought, an imprint or portrait born within it; understanding stops at the idea (looked at as an instrumental sign). This idea-portrait, this idea-thing, has as its double a thing to which it bears a resemblance but which is itself not attained by the act of understanding. They are two separate quod’s, and the divine veracity is needed to assure us that behind the idea-quod (which we attain), there is a thing-quod corresponding to it. Of itself thought attains nothing but itself [136-137].
Recall with me the Aristotelian-Thomistic understanding of what it means to say that a certain proposition is true: that is, a proposition is true if it corresponds to reality. If I say that the sky is green, everyone knows immediately that what I said is false. It does not correspond to reality. It seems clear from what Maritain wrote that Descartes must necessarily have a different conception of what it means to say that a proposition is true, because for him there is no possibility of a knowledge of the real world around him.

On the one hand, he says this (Maritain’s description of his view is consistent with this):
If I've gotten everything in me from God and He hasn't given me the ability to make errors, it doesn't seem possible for me ever to error. [Source]
On that page they quote him saying that “error is a lack,” but of what? It seems that the answer is that truth for Descartes is founded upon “clear and distinct” perceptions (see basically this entire article). Well, clearly this is completely unlike Aquinas’ view (and Aristotle’s for that matter). And if one’s idea of what truth is doesn’t hinge upon correspondence with reality, then what he has done is to functionally set himself free to say that just about anything is true: why not? The effect of this is to remove oneself from accountability for what he believes, because he no longer has any standard by which to measure the truth of what he says. In this there neither is nor can be any dependence upon Aquinas for Descartes, and the two are at odds. St Thomas affirms that what we say must be measured by the standard of reality. Descartes does not. This, it seems to me, is surely at the root of the rise of autonomous reason. But, contrary to Schaeffer, it is absolutely not a view that can be attributed to Aquinas. Schaeffer was wrong. Aquinas cannot be blamed for the disastrous course of modern philosophy.

[Update, a little later] I nearly forgot that I wrote about these subjects a few years ago. In this post, we see that St Thomas more or less addressed Descartes’ erroneous theory about knowledge of the external world, and here is a brief discussion of Aquinas’ views about the reliability of the senses.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Trent Does Not Contradict Orange

I recently stumbled across a page on a Protestant website that purports to demonstrate contradictions between the Council of Trent and the second Council of Orange. It attempts this by comparing the canons of Trent on Justification to those of Orange. My purpose here is to show that the demonstration fails, and that Trent does not contradict Orange.

Before we go too far, though, a few things should be said. First and foremost, the Second Council of Orange was not an ecumenical council. Trent was. Consequently it is possible in principle for two such councils to actually contradict, but if that happens it is the non-ecumenical council which is in error. The Church does not claim that non-ecumenical councils as such have any charism for infallibility as may be exercised by the ecumenical councils. Now, we’ll find (as I intend to show) that Trent doesn’t actually contradict Orange, but the point I wish to affirm from the beginning is that such a contradiction—if it actually existed—would not stand as ipso facto proof that the Church’s claims are false. In this case, though, Orange’s acts were formally approved by the Pope, and consequently “enjoy ecumenical authority” (source).

Secondly, it should be pointed out that the comparison ignores the actual teaching of Trent on justification, focusing instead upon the canons. This is a mistake because canons do not in themselves have dogmatic force. Rather, they are a disciplinary measure that are founded upon the dogmas of the Council, and constitute a disciplinary expression of the dogmas. The point is that if you really want to know what Trent taught about justification, you need to look at the Decree on Justification rather than at the canons. It is disappointing that the author of the comparison did not do this. Certainly it is not because he was unable to find them; the very page he used as a source for his comparison for the canons also contains the Decree on Justification, and he had to scroll past the Decree in order to find the canons.
Thirdly, it’s interesting to me that there are thirty-three canons on justification, but the Protestant critic of Trent alleges contradictions with Orange related to just three of those canons. So I’m inclined to wonder: is this the worst that you can come up with?

Lastly, for the sake of stifling completeness, I’ve already written quite a few posts on the subject of Trent’s teaching on justification. It is abundantly clear that Trent taught nothing like what is charged by our Protestant accuser.
The three canons we’ll be looking at are 4, 5, and 11.
Canon 4:
If any one saith, that man’s free will moved and excited by God, by assenting to God exciting and calling, nowise co-operates towards disposing and preparing itself for obtaining the grace of Justification; that it cannot refuse its consent, if it would, but that, as something inanimate, it does nothing whatever and is merely passive; let him be anathema.
The text from Orange that canon 4 is alleged to contradict, including the emphasis that was added by our Protestant critic:
If anyone says that not only the increase of faith but also its beginning and the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies the ungodly … belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proof that he is opposed to the teaching of the Apostles, for blessed Paul says, “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And again, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8)
It seems that the emphasized portions are intended to show us where the contradiction is, so that we are to infer that canon 4 (and consequently Trent) denies that the beginning of faith, the desire for it, and the increase of faith are all a gift of grace. The problem with this alleged contradiction is that it doesn’t exist. Look at the second clause of Canon 4: “that man’s free will moved and excited by God…” The canon’s not saying that we don’t need grace; on the contrary, it’s saying that we absolutely need it, because it’s talking about a man whose free will has been moved by God first. How did our Protestant accuser miss this? I don’t know. If I had to guess, I’d say that he missed it because he holds to a false view of free will: namely, I’d guess that he probably supposes that unbelievers (at the least) don’t have free will. This view is an error, because (as St Augustine rightly taught) “punishment would be unjust if man did not have free will.” But free will doesn’t imply the ability to do just anything, and among other things it must be moved by God (as canon 4 says) before it can assent to God’s call.

So much for the criticisms of canon 4. Here is canon 5:
If any one saith, that, since Adam’s sin, the free will of man is lost and extinguished; or, that it is a thing with only a name, yea a name without a reality, a figment, in fine, introduced into the Church by Satan; let him be anathema.
And the corresponding criticism from the Protestant page, with its original emphasis:
If anyone maintains that some are able to come to the grace of baptism by mercy but others through free will, which has manifestly been corrupted in all those who have been born after the transgression of the first man, it is proof that he has no place in the true faith. For he denies that the free will of all men has been weakened through the sin of the first man, or at least holds that it has been affected in such a way that they have still the ability to seek the mystery of eternal salvation by themselves without the revelation of God. The Lord himself shows how contradictory this is by declaring that no one is able to come to him “unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44), as he also says to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:17), and as the Apostle says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).
Once again, there is no contradiction here. Canon 5 of Trent condemns those who deny that man has free will, and Orange says not that free will has been lost, but that it has been corrupted. Our critic further claims (from what he has emphasized from Orange) that canon 5 contradicts Orange’s insistence that grace is necessary. But this too is absurd, as my series of posts about Trent make inescapably clear (but we’re going to briefly review some of these facts here anyway, in a little while).

Here is canon 11 from Trent:
If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.
Our Protestant critic doesn’t quote Orange here; instead, he offers this commentary:
[Note: this says if the “the grace, whereby we are justified, is ONLY the favour of God; let him be anathema.” In Other her words, RCC outright rejects SOLA GRATIA - salvation by grace alone in Christ alone, thereby anathematizing both Augustine and their own early church council.]
It appears that our Critic has unfortunately misunderstood the canon, and has arrived at preposterous conclusions as a result. With respect to what grace is, canon 11 is denying the Protestant error that grace is neither more nor less than God’s favor. The point of the canon is that there is more to God’s grace than His mere favor, and that those who say otherwise have in this respect departed from the Catholic Faith. It is certainly not saying there is anything non-divine in grace. I hope that I’m misunderstanding this gentleman, but based upon what he writes here, it seems as though he really thinks that canon 11 is endorsing a view of grace that includes something from outside of God. This is egregiously mistaken. For starters, the first half of the canon is explicitly insisting upon the fact that “the grace and charity poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost” are essential constituents of justification, and obviously (since they are poured forth by the Holy Spirit) they are solely and exclusively from God, as I have already pointed out in a previous post on canon 11. So how this can in any way be described as a denial of salvation by grace alone is beyond my powers to comprehend. It’s just crazy talk.

At this point it’s probably a good idea to review the Decree on Justification on a few points related to these canons, because the Decree is the essential context for properly understanding what the Fathers of Trent meant by the canons. But before we do that it might be a good idea to have the Decree on Original Sin firmly in the back of our minds, not least because they explicitly refer to it themselves. Here’s my post on the subject. Among other things, they say:
If any one asserts, that this sin of Adam,--which in its origin is one, and being transfused into all by propagation, not by imitation, is in each one as his own, --is taken away either by the powers of human nature, or by any other remedy than the merit of the one mediator, our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath reconciled us to God in his own blood, made unto us justice, sanctification, and redemption; or if he denies that the said merit of Jesus Christ is applied, both to adults and to infants, by the sacrament of baptism rightly administered in the form of the church; let him be anathema [Decree on Original Sin, §3; emphasis added].
Back to the Decree on Justification. In Chapter I, they declare:
not the Gentiles only by the force of nature, but not even the Jews by the very letter itself of the law of Moses, were able to be liberated, or to arise, [from sin]; although free will, attenuated as it was in its powers, and bent down, was by no means extinguished in them.
See my post on this chapter here.

Chapter II describes what God did on our behalf in view of the circumstances adumbrated in Chapter I: that is, because we cannot justify ourselves, He sent His Son to save us. My post on this is here.

Chapter V is the next chapter relevant for the present discussion. It declares that justification begins with the grace of God, “without any merits existing [on the part of man].” My post on this is here.

In my opinion the heart of the Decree is chapter VII, because in it the Fathers declare what the causes of our justification are. Here is my post on the subject. Executive summary: none of the causes of our justification enumerated by Trent is something that man does, as though he can justify himself.

Trent doesn’t contradict Second Orange.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Correcting some misapprehensions

A gentleman named Drake Shelton seems to have begun a series of blog posts in which he intends to present his confession of faith. Part one may be found here. My interest is less in considering or evaluating this confession and more in correcting what I understand to be mistakes in it related to St Thomas and Aristotle. In the first section, on epistemology, he offers the following quotation from a Protestant philosopher/theologian Gordon Clark and a few comments upon it. Mr. Shelton’s comments are primarily what interest me, but the rest of the quotation here is necessary for context:

Experience at best teaches us that one event follows another. It never shows that one causes the other. Experience at best gives sequence not causality. (pg. 24)…First of all causality is a relative term: That is, there can be no causes unless there is an effect. We say X causes Y. Omit either one of them and there is left neither cause nor effect (pg. 25)…a cause must be an event that guarantees the effect…There must be because the cause must produce its result. If in the time interval something happens, or even could happen, to prevent the effect, there is no cause…two objections. First, but illogically, he will say, ‘But I mean X cause Y if nothing intervenes.’ Stated thus baldly the fallacy is flagrant. However, it can be stated more covertly. Food nourishes us, if we do not get seasick, and if the stomach finishes its function, and if the juices are absorbed into the blood, and if the blood is brought to the muscles. But note well: We no longer have two event, X and Y. We have the definition of nourishment; and surely it is logical to insist that if we are nourished, it follows logically but not temporally, that we are nourished. (pg. 26) [emphasis in original]

And Mr. Shelton’s comments:

The context of this last section is the “spatio temporal” world of the empiricists and the Aristotelians. This view of God we reject. They will say that God causes all things because he is the first mover. This is not what a Scripturalist means when he says that God causes all things, because the Aristotelian view assumes that the subsequent motions are proximate causes. This Clark just refuted. Dr. Clark says, ”We now concur with the Islamic anti-Aristotelian Al Gazali: God and God alone is the cause, for only God can guarantee occurrence of Y, and indeed of X as well. [emphasis added]

Whatever may be the case about the book from which he’s quoting, it’s emphatically not the case that Clark has refuted Aristotle’s view of causality in the quotation above. Why do I say this? Because it does not even address it. Why do I say that? Because Aristotelian-Thomistic causality doesn’t have to do with temporal relations between events. Rather, it has to do with act and potency, and specifically with how potencies are raised to act. But Clark doesn’t address this in the quotation. Rather, he talks about events and relations and sequence. The whole quotation sounds a lot like Feser’s description and subsequent demolition of Hume’s critique of causality in chapters 2 and 3 of Aquinas. And Feser makes it pretty clear that Hume either didn’t understand or wasn’t talking about A-T causality, too.

Thirdly, although Shelton claims that Clark has refuted the A-T view of proximate causes, it seems pretty clear that this isn’t so. Why? Aside from the fact that nothing in the Clark quotation has to do with A-T causation per se, there’s nothing in the quotation that even refers to proximate causes. At any rate, I don’t see it. It may be that Mr. Shelton is referring to the hypothetical objection that Clark supposes might be raised to his argument: “But I mean X causes Y if nothing intervenes.” But this has to do with X being ordered to bringing about Y in such a way that Y is guaranteed unless something intervenes to prevent it. This is what the quote is talking about, after all, since Clark had just said:

If in the time interval something happens, or even could happen, to prevent the effect, there is no cause…

So proximate causes are not in view at all, since proximate causes do not prevent an effect.

(By the way, this one sentence shows that Clark’s argument doesn’t work against A-T causation, because in A-T causation the First Mover’s action and the resulting motion of the thing moved are simultaneous. Consequently there is no time interval at all.)

In short, then, it seems clear that Mr. Shelton’s claims against Aristotle (and consequently St Thomas, in this instance) don’t work.

Along similar lines there are a couple other observations about the post that seem worthwhile to make. A little later in the post, Mr. Shelton asserts:

Man receives no knowledge from created and empirical means. Eccles. 8:16-17.

But Mr. Shelton had to read (an empirical means) the Bible (a created means) in order to determine whether the given quotation might support this claim. So this seems to be pretty self-refuting. :-)

Toward the end of the article, he claims:

The law of contradiction is deduced from 1Co 14:6

It’s not clear whether his claim is “Among other ways, the law of contradiction may be deduced from 1 Cor. 14:6” or “The law of contradiction may only be derived from 1 Cor. 14:6.” If the latter: Parmenides (a Greek) formulated the law of contradiction 500 years before St Paul was born. So the latter claim would be clearly false.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Communion with Protestants

Recently the question arose: may Catholics participate in the Lord’s Supper with Protestants? The answer is an unfortunate “No, we may not.” It is unfortunate because of the fact that Christians are not united, and it is for that reason necessary that we not participate in the Lord’s Supper with them.

The Catechism says:

Ecclesial communities derived from the Reformation and separated from the Catholic Church, “have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic mystery in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Holy Orders.” It is for this reason that Eucharistic intercommunion with these communities is not possible for the Catholic Church. However these ecclesial communities, “when they commemorate the Lord's death and resurrection in the Holy Supper . . . profess that it signifies life in communion with Christ and await his coming in glory.” [§1400]

Furthermore, this practice is forbidden by Canon Law:

Catholic ministers administer the sacraments licitly to Catholic members of the Christian faithful alone, who likewise receive them licitly from Catholic ministers alone. [CIC 844, §1]

The requirements of this canon depend for their necessity upon the necessity of the truth expressed by the Catechism.

Why is this important? Because Communion is an expression of the unity of the Church as Christ’s Body. An absolutely essential part of that unity is unity of belief. Why? Because the Lord Jesus Christ says that He is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). But if those who commune do not hold to what the Church teaches, then to that extent they are contradicting what Jesus said of Himself. An important thing to remember here is that the Church is not merely a human or earthly institution; as I said above, the Church is Christ’s Body. Consequently unity of belief is necessary just because He is truth Himself. To suggest that errors do not matter isn’t merely a question of being charitable or not. In the end, our very understanding of the nature of reality is at stake.

So we may not participate in Protestant ordinances like the Lord’s Supper precisely because we are not in full communion with them.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Bloggers Emeritus

I’ve added a gadget for an honor roll of sorts for bloggers who have apparently moved on to other pursuits. These folks made what I consider to be invaluable contributions in their own ways, and I thank them for their efforts.


I just came across a rather startling remark made by Protestant theologian Cornelius Van Til:

The law of contradiction, as we know it, is but the expression on a created level of the internal coherence of God’s nature. Christians should therefore never appeal to the law of contradiction as something that, as such, determines what can or cannot be true. [Introduction to Systematic Theology, 11]

Many years ago I read that book. It has been far too long for me to remember anything in particular about it, but I must confess that I find this to be a rather bizarre remark, and likewise one that is just wrong.

In the first place, the law of contradiction is first and foremost a comment on the nature of existence, and it wasn’t formulated by a Christian. It’s as old as the Greeks. It’s as simple as this: whatever is, is; whatever isn’t, isn’t. A thing can’t exist and not exist at the same time. You don’t have to be a Christian to realize this. It’s bound up in the very meaning of the terms.

In the second place, I can’t fathom how anyone could rationally say that the law of contradiction doesn’t say anything about what can or can’t be true. The keyboard I’m using either exists or it doesn’t, and to say that the law of contradiction doesn’t determine this is utter nonsense. Likewise a given geometric shape is either a circle or it isn’t. It can’t be both a circle and a non-circle at the same time and in the same respect. So to say (as Van Til apparently did) that the law of contradiction must not at all be appealed to as a determiner of what’s true is crazy talk.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Schaeffer vs Aquinas Redux

In my last little seizure of activity some months ago, I spent some time reviewing the case against Schaeffer’s erroneous claim that Aquinas must bear some (most of the?) blame for the course of modern philosophy—a claim that’s just bizarre, considering that it’s basically universally accepted that modern philosophy really begins with Descartes, and considering that Descartes explicitly and self-consciously repudiated the Scholastics (which of course includes St Thomas). Recently I stumbled across something that might possibly explain exactly where and how Schaeffer got his wrong idea.

In Praeambula Fidei, the late Dr. Ralph McInerny defends Thomism and St Thomas from the claim made by some scholars that Aquinas didn’t actually accept the idea of the preambles of faith, and that the notion was injected into Thomism by later commentators – especially Cajetan. “Preambles of faith” refers to the fact that there are things that we can know about God by means of reason which serve as stepping stones on the path to faith.

The third chapter of PF is particularly relevant to the present question concerning Schaeffer. In it, McInerny defends Cajetan against charges made by de Lubac. In 1946 de Lubac wrote Surnaturel (“Supernatural”; sorry, I haven’t got a link to an English language version of the book, and I’m not even completely certain that the link is to the right book), in which he proposes to show whether “the teaching of Saint Thomas on this capital point [concerning the supernatural] was indeed that offered by the Thomist school as established in the sixteenth century, codified in the seventeenth, and affirmed even more starkly in the twentieth” [quote taken from PF, page 70].

McInerny offers the following setting of the scene, which he draws from one of de Lubac’s partisans:

For Cajetan, nature does nothing in vain: it cannot have an aspiration it could not accomplish by its own means. If there is a desire for God in man, this is not natural, but added by God in a gratuitous act of omnipotence and His will. By right, nature is self-sufficiency (this is the theory of pure nature), and if in fact man always desires God, this is simply because God wills it and substitutes it for the order of nature. Cajetan thus combined an atheist humanism and a theology destructive of human nature. One can see the devastating consequences that de Lubac was able to draw from the course of history [PF, p. 71, emphasis added].

Does this bear any resemblance to Schaeffer’s charge against Aquinas? I think it that it does. Schaeffer’s claim holds water only to the extent that it can be said that Aquinas really did foster the idea of autonomous reason, which view is akin to “atheist humanism.” But this is exactly what McInerny tells us was de Lubac’s charge against Cajetan.

What does McInerny say about the claims made in this quotation?

Almost every charge against Cajetan in this paragraph is false. [PF, p. 72]


[It is said by Cajetan’s critics that] …[t]he commentators of the sixteenth century, by holding that man is not naturally called to the vision of God, end by juxtaposing a natural end of man distinct from his beatifying fulfillment. “They give credit then to a secularized natural order—cultural, moral, philosophic…Pure nature is thus linked to ‘separated reason.’” [Ibid.]

This, too, sounds a lot like Schaeffer’s claim.

Given his understanding of how mankind has declined into secularization and atheism, de Lubac’s animus against Cajetan is understandable, however unjust. He takes Cajetan to be, if not the inventor, then the propagator of a notion of obediential potency that presupposes a state of nature and thus suggests that we are, in a natural state, autonomous, self-sufficient. What need, then, for the supernatural? … There are two great problems with de Lubac’s criticism: first, Cajetan does not say the things de Lubac claims he says; second, it is de Lubac, not Cajetan, who is out of harmony with the teaching of Aquinas. [PF, p. 87]

In short: de Lubac, writing in the middle 20th century, says practically the same things about Cajetan that Schaeffer would later (in 1968) suggest about Aquinas:

But the important point in what followed was that a really autonomous area was set up. From the basis of this autonomous principle, philosophy also became free, and was separated from revelation. Therefore philosophy began to take wings, as it were, and fly off wherever it wished, without relationship to the Scriptures.... Aquinas had opened the way to an autonomous Humanism, an autonomous philosophy, and once the movement gained momentum, there was soon a flood. [Escape from Reason, 11-13, quoted here]

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that Schaeffer’s views here might well have been influenced by de Lubac’s. This gentleman, for example, associates the two’s criticisms as being substantially the same, so it’s not just crazy me that thinks so. But there are two problems. In the first place, de Lubac was criticizing Cajetan and not Aquinas; but more importantly, McInerny doesn’t leave any serious room for discussion: de Lubac was just wrong in his interpretation of Cajetan. The latter was rather a faithful commentator of Aquinas rather than an innovator, and furthermore Aquinas doesn’t hold the view that de Lubac attributed to Cajetan either.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Schaeffer might have been exposed to de Lubac’s views. There are sufficient parallels in the criticisms the two men offer to suggest a connection. Obviously I could be mistaken, because I certainly don’t know anything about Schaeffer’s personal library. The important thing to keep in mind, though, is that de Lubac was wrong about Cajetan, and (on this point anyway) misunderstood Aquinas as well. Schaeffer does the same, and in practically the same way.

The subject at hand in Aquinas is obediential potency, which has to do with how it is that we have a desire to see God. As human beings we have certain faculties and powers that are ordered to life as material beings in a material world. But because we are not merely material—because we have souls—we also have powers that are ordered to something beyond the material world. St Thomas addresses this issue in the Disputed Questions on the Power of God. In q.1, a.3, he addresses the question whether God can do what nature cannot, and answers in the affirmative:

[Objection] 1. The (ordinary) gloss on Romans xi, 24 says that since God is the author of nature he cannot do what is contrary to nature. Now things that nature cannot do are contrary to nature. Therefore God cannot do them.

I answer … thing is said to be impossible in respect of a power in two ways. First, on account of an inherent defect in the power, in that the effect is beyond its reach, as when a natural agent cannot transform a certain matter. Secondly, when the impossibility arises from without, as in the case of a power that is hindered or tied. Accordingly there are three ways in which it is said to be impossible for a thing to be done. First, by reason of a defect in the active power, whether in transforming matter, or in any other way. Secondly, by reason of a resistant or an obstacle. Thirdly, because that which is said to be impossible cannot be the term of an action. Those things, then, which are impossible to nature in the first or second way are possible to God: because, since his power is infinite, it is subject to no defect, nor is there any matter that he cannot transform at will, since his power is irresistible. On the other hand those things which involve the third kind of impossibility God cannot do, since he is supreme act and sovereign being: wherefore his action cannot terminate otherwise than principally in being, and secondarily in nonbeing. Consequently he cannot make yes and no to be true at the same time, nor any of those things which involve such an impossibility. Nor is he said to be unable to do these things through lack of power, but through lack of possibility, such things being intrinsically impossible: and this is what is meant by those who say that ‘God can do it, but it cannot be done.’

Reply to the First Objection. Augustine’s words quoted in the gloss mean, not that God is unable to do otherwise than nature does, since his works are often contrary to the wonted course of nature; but that whatever he does in things is not contrary to nature, but is nature in them, forasmuch as he is the author and controller of nature. Thus in the physical order we observe that when an inferior body is moved by a higher, the movement is natural to it, although it may not seem in keeping with the movement which it has by reason of its own nature: thus the tidal movement of the sea is caused by the moon; and this movement is natural to it as the Commentator observes (De coelo et mundo, iii, comm. 20), although water of itself has naturally a downward movement. Thus in all creatures, what God does in them is quasi-natural to them. Wherefore we distinguish in them a twofold potentiality: a natural potentiality in respect of their proper operations and movements, and another, which we call obediential, in respect of what is done in them by God. [Source]

The point here is that the facts that we are called to an end above us (namely, the beatific vision), and that we begin to obtain knowledge by way of our senses—which means that we begin to get knowledge by way of the material world—are not contradictory. Obediential potency is that which gives us the capability to become children of God.

Now with respect to philosophy, it is consequently no contradiction in the view of St Thomas to say that the intellect is capable of attaining to truths about God, and that in fact this is its true and final end (i.e., the beatific vision again, wherein the blessed contemplate God). And because this is its end, it is in no way autonomous. This is why he says (as we saw in a previous post) that “Whatsoever is found in other sciences contrary to any truth of this science must be condemned as false.” Because reason isn’t free to just go its own way, but is rather properly ordered to God. So it it’s just plain mistaken for Schaeffer to suggest that Aquinas set reason loose. But in view of what McInerny reports in PF about the history of Catholic theology in the mid-twentieth century, it is perhaps the case that Schaeffer leaned on a weak reed for his ideas, and borrowed from gentlemen who didn’t have their facts straight.