The context of the Five Ways

The Five Ways occur within an attempt to describe the triune God:

The consideration of God will have three parts (1) What belongs to the divine essence (2) what belongs to the distinction of persons (3) what belongs to the procession of creatures from him.

Consideratio autem de Deo tripartita erit. Primo namque considerabimus ea quae ad essentiam divinam pertinent; secundo, ea quae pertinent ad distinctionem personarum; tertio, ea quae pertinent ad processum creaturarum ab ipso.

This is also clear from a consideration of the source material for the Summa. It is essentially an updating or  new edition of the Sentences, where the treatise on God was much more obviously an attempt to understand the Trinity since the questions on unity and distinction are more jumbled together as opposed to being neatly separated into two separate treatises on God. One danger in this neat, systematic division is to lose sight of the unity of the project.

Specifically, the Five Ways are the first move of a larger project to describe what is common or essential in the triune God, establishing that there is something deserving the name deus whose existence cannot be simply observed but needs to be proven from what we observe. This need for proof is itself a fleshing out what God is. One does not need to prove the existence of the universe or nature or beings who dwell on a mountain, and so STA rules out the god of pantheism or the Olympians or of temple-idols, who do not need to be proven but can be simply observed. This account of the divine is not opposed to faith but is integral to it, and is apiece with Scriptures constant drum-beat of the condemnation of the gods of the Gentiles. One need not have faith in the existence of a deity that can be observed.

The focus on the need to describe the Trinity continues in the questions following the Five Ways: e.g. the familiar and foundational thesis of God as actus essendi or the same in essence and esse is appropriated as an explanation of the unity of the persons who share a single act of existence.

That STA is doing theology is not an excuse to do bad philosophy, as though his arguments are shooting from the hip and silently assuming that we can just get all this stuff by faith. It is an attempt to integrate, to the degree they had developed at his time, the whole tradition of the Church with Scriptural authority and the insights of the science and logic. The philosophy can no more be shoddy philosophy than the patristic citations can be shoddy citations. One can isolate and admire the philosophy of the Summa in much the same way we can admire its appropriation of Augustine or Neoplatonism (and there are studies on this too), but this is an abstraction from the work that STA is engaged in.

My point is that it is deeply mistaken and short-sighted to take the theology of the Summa as somehow opposed to the simple truth of the Scriptures. The Summa is simpler than Scripture. It distills the whole of Scripture down to the thesis that God created a world that fell away from him and was returned to him in Christ and then tries to flesh out the details of what is involved in this. It would be truer to see the Summa as a simplification of Scripture than as an alternative to it.

 

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