(1224–1274) was born and raised in Italy, studied under Benedictine monks as a child, and attended the University of Naples before joining the Dominicans, the order of preachers in the Roman Catholic Church. His advanced study in philosophy and theology took place primarily at the University of Paris. After receiving his doctorate there, he began a twenty-year period as an active teacher in Paris and Italy (1252–1273). The best known of his works is the multivolume Summa Theologica. His work on ethics is only a part of this massive work.
One of Thomas’s fundamental ethical concepts was the notion of the public good under law. Ethics was much more than simply one’s inner attitude, as was the case with the Stoics.
The good is based on his concept of natural law, that is, the natural tendencies of a thing. This includes a consideration both of its end and its function. These were considered to be natural and thus ordained by the creator God. Happiness is knowing God and loving the good, while evil is that which interferes with it.
Thomas held that the principles of natural law are self-evident precepts from which practical reason deduces moral maxims. Natural law imprints its structure on beings and therefore determines its inclinations to proper acts and ends.
Natural law can be known by reason and is accessible to everyone, regardless of an individual’s relationship to God.
Aquinas saw human beings as essentially social beings. He reasoned that even if the fall had not occurred, government and the state would still have a place. Thus his social ethic left more room for the state to intervene to improve the lot of society. For Aquinas, institutions exist to encourage the development of good people.
Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction To Ethics, Third Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 52.
Objection 1. It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word “God” means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.
Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.
On the contrary, It is said in the person of God: “I am Who I am” (Ex. 3:14).
I answer that, The existence of God can be proved in five ways.
The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act.
For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another.
If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand.
Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.
The second way is from the nature of the efficient cause. In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one.
Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.
The third way is taken from possibility and necessity, and runs thus. We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to corrupt, and consequently, they are possible to be and not to be. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not. Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence—which is absurd.
Therefore, not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary. But every necessary thing either has its necessity caused by another, or not. Now it is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as has been already proved in regard to efficient causes. Therefore we cannot but postulate the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of as God.
The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But “more” and “less” are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being. . . . Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.
The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.
Reply to Objection 1. As Augustine says (Enchir. xi): “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.
Reply to Objection 2. Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its first cause. So also whatever is done voluntarily must also be traced back to some higher cause other than human reason or will, since these can change or fail; for all things that are changeable and capable of defect must be traced back to an immovable and self-necessary first principle, as was shown in the body of the Article.
According to Augustine in On Christian Doctrine , one skilled in speech should “so speak as to teach, to delight, and to change; that is, to teach the ignorant, to delight the bored and to change the lazy.” To that hopeful end, the first words that Thomas Aquinas spoke in his inaugural sermon as a newly minted Master of Theology were from Augustine’s work. In the days and years to come however, where Augustine synthesized rhetorical and theological styles, Aquinas separated them.
In his book European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Ernst Robert Curtius writes “This rhetorical-theological divide was implicit in the Aristotelian distinction between rhetoric (the art of persuasion) and dialectic (the art of reasoning) that became explicit when theology was declared a “science” and elevated beyond the liberal arts.” Aquinas is not casual reading.
John Mark Reynolds, writing in his book The Great Books Reader adds:
Thomas, of all men, knew that sacred and secular must come together in the beating heart of man as created in the image of God. He lived as he thought, and his hymns are as beautiful as his philosophy is profound.
Argue with Thomas, because that is what he wants you to do, but follow his argument carefully, for it is very subtle. Few readers, perhaps, will agree with everything he says—even the Church of Rome does not—but it’s always worth considering.
Once you get the trick of reading Thomas, he is easy to “get” but also hard to exhaust. His argument is clear, but it’s also subtle, and what seems like an obvious problem will be filled in later or is anticipated in his careful wording.
How do you force yourself to read slowly and deliberately when the text requires it? Is this difficult for you?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.
D I G D E E P E R
The Truth of Saint Thomas Aquinas
I am totally convinced that Saint Thomas Aquinas was the greatest, wisest, most intelligent merely human theologian who ever lived.
Why? Let the first reason be that he told the truth. Nothing trumps that.
Second, he’s the master of common sense. What he says is always what sound reason says, even though he says it in his difficult, technical, medieval-Aristotelian vocabulary. G. K. Chesterton’s Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox proves this brilliantly.
Third, he was not just a head but a heart: a saint and a practical man. Kings, peasants, and popes wrote to him for advice and always got back sound wisdom. (Example: his cure for depression—a hot bath, a glass of wine, and a good night’s sleep.)
Fourth, he combined the two essential goals of thinking better than anyone else: profundity and clarity. He wrote about the most difficult and profound questions a man can ask: God and man, good and evil, life and death, virtue and vice, soul and body, intellect and will, predestination and free will, nature and grace—and he did it clearly and simply. Though at first he seems difficult, he becomes amazingly straightforward and simple on subsequent readings, once the vocabulary obstacle is overcome. He is a transparent window; there are no impositions of his personality, no rhetorical tricks, no extra words, no digressions, all bottom-line, right-to-the-point answers, and always with compelling logical reasons.
Fifth, he fulfilled more than anyone else the essential medieval program of a marriage of faith and reason, revelation and philosophy, the biblical and the classical inheritances. He “baptized” philosophy, especially Aristotle. He did not turn the Christian faith into a purely rational philosophy; he turned Aristotle’s purely rational philosophy into a servant of Christian faith.
Sixth, he also combined elaborate, careful detail with “the big picture,” his cosmic perspective, which is breathtakingly big.
Thomas Aquinas wrote many thousands of pages in addition to his unfinished four-thousand-page masterpiece, the Summa Theologiae, which he dictated to four secretaries at once, sentence by sentence, never changing a word. Then he stopped writing and called everything he had ever written “straw” compared with “what has been revealed to me” (or, in another account, “what I have seen”). His fellow monks heard a heavenly voice ask him, “You have written well of Me, Thomas, what will you have as your reward,” and heard his absolutely perfect, absolutely simple answer: “Only Thyself, Lord.” Never was more said in fewer words.
By the way, Protestants and Anglicans and even agnostics often love and respect Thomas as much as Catholics do. Certainly, there was no greater thinker for two thousand years between the death of Aristotle and the publication of Descartes’ Discourse on Method (except perhaps Augustine). Whoever you are, your mind will get a wonderful workout in clarity and logic, as well as orthodox theology, by reading him.
Reading Thomas Aquinas is like eating spinach. It tastes strange at first, but it makes you stronger. His habits of clarity and order rub off on you, even when you disagree with him.
Nevertheless, read him slowly. The Summa is not a novel but a reference book.
Furthermore, Summa is an ordered summary, not a closed system. Its structural outline is a mirror of reality. It begins in God, “in the beginning,” then proceeds to the act of Creation and God’s continuing providence in dealing with creatures, centering on man, who alone is created in God’s image; it ends with man’s return to God, his end, through his moral and religious life, and finally man’s means to this end of salvation, namely Christ, who saves man through His body and His church (which is His body). It’s the universal drama of God as Alpha and Omega of all time and change. God pumps the blood of being through the arteries of creation into the body of the universe, which wears a human face, and receives it back through the veins of man’s life of free choice of faith, hope, and love. This is a cosmic circulatory system.
It’s good to be aware that, though logically outlined into many sub, sub-sub, and sub-sub-subdivisions, the basic unit of the Summa is the “article,” typically a page or two long, which has five structural parts:
1. The question is formulated in a yes or no format, beginning with “Whether . . .”
2. Objections to his answer are given, fairly and clearly and completely, beginning with “It seems that . . .”
3. An argument from a past authority is given, with the formula “On the contrary . . .”
4. The body of the article, beginning with “I answer that . . .” is his main proof for his position, with explanations along the way.
5. Finally, each objection is answered, usually by distinguishing what is true and what is false in it.
This is no merely local and quaint medieval format. Not one of these steps can ever be omitted if we want to have good grounds for settling any controversial question.
Thomas Aquinas is scrupulously fair. Though his prosaic, literal, bottom-line logical style is an extreme contrast to Augustine’s charming, rambling, and singing poetry, his single-minded, pure passion for truth is strikingly similar. Neither of them seems even capable of dishonesty.
If you were a CIA agent recruiting among philosophers for spies, no two would be more hopelessly inept than these.
Peter Kreeft, PhD, is a professor of Philosophy at Boston College and The King’s College, New York. He is an acclaimed author and speaker on many philosophical and theological topics.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).
O we can wait no longer, We too take ship O soul, Joyous we too launch out on trackless seas, Fearless for unknown shores on waves of ecstasy to sail, Amid the wafting winds, (thou pressing me to thee, I thee to me, O soul,) Caroling free, singing our song of God, Chanting our chant of pleasant exploration. … Away O soul! hoist instantly the anchor! Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail! … Sail forth—steer for the deep waters only! Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me, For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all
AN ESSAY ON CRITICISM
A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring; There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. 14 He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. 15 All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you.
When we say “God will not give you more than you can bear,” we usually mean troubles, but truthfully we are misquoting 1 Corinthians 10:13 where the subject is temptation. It is interesting to note that Jesus said the same thing about knowledge. John 16 reveals this from a conversation with His disciples the night before He was crucified: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” As Leon Morris wrote “There were vistas of truth they could not yet see.”
Light yields light, and the journey is everlasting. As Ken Kovacs said in his book Out of the Depths:
The same is certainly true of us today. The Spirit is still the guide and the teacher and the source of truth, who reveals and discloses to us things beyond our imagining, things beyond our seeing (1 Corinthians 2:6-10), beyond reason, things beyond the limited confines of what we know, whose wisdom leads us forward. We have yet to figure out what it means to really follow Christ, to bear the name Christian. We have yet to fully fathom the heights and the depths of God’s grace and what is being asked of us with our lives. Our hearts need to be as deep and wide as the oceans of God’s love. We have yet to discover what it means when we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”—we certainly haven’t arrived at that new world, that kingdom world. But that’s where the Spirit wants to take us, is taking us, will take us, is willing to guide us every step along the way, even if we don’t have a map, even if our maps are wrong. Trust the Spirit
How has knowledge matured into wisdom in your life?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Kenneth E. Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, and has served congregations in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Mendham, New Jersey. Ken studied at Rutgers College, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his Ph.D. in practical theology from the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland. He is also an analyst-in-training at the C. G. Jung Institute-Zürich. Author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011) and Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parson’s Porch, 2016), his current research areas include C. G. Jung and contemporary Christian experience. Ken has served on the board of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, is a current board member of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, and a book reviewer for The Presbyterian Outlook.
Knowledge, like being, is a term of comprehensive scope. Its comprehensiveness is, in a way, correlative with that of being. The only thing which cannot be an object of knowledge or opinion, which cannot be thought about in any way except negatively, is that which has no being of any sort—in short, nothing. Not all things may be knowable to us, but even the skeptic who severely limits or completely doubts man’s power to know is usually willing to admit that things beyond man’s knowledge are in themselves knowable. Everyone except Berkeley would agree that the surfaces of bodies which we cannot see are not, for that reason, in themselves invisible.
The consideration of knowledge extends, therefore, to all things knowable, to all kinds of knowers, to all the modes of knowledge, and all the methods of knowing. So extensive an array of topics exceeds the possibility of treatment in a single chapter and requires this chapter to be related to many others.
The Cross-References which follow the References indicate the other chapters which deal with particulars we cannot consider here. For example, the nature of history, science, philosophy, and theology, and their distinction from one another, are treated in the chapters devoted to those subjects. So, too, the chapters on metaphysics, mathematics, physics, mechanics, and medicine deal with the characteristics and relations of these special sciences. The psychological factors in knowing—the faculties of sense and mind, of memory and imagination, the nature of experience and reasoning—also have their own chapters. Still other chapters deal with the logical elements of knowledge, such as idea and judgment, definition, hypothesis, principle, induction, and reasoning, logic and dialectic.
The program which Locke sets himself in his essay Concerning Human Understanding is often taken to include the basic questions about knowledge. His purpose, he tells us, is “to inquire into the original, certainty, and extent of human knowledge, together with the grounds and degrees of belief, opinion, and assent.” Two other matters, not explicitly mentioned by Locke in his opening pages, assume central importance in the fourth book of his essay. One is the question about the nature of knowledge itself. The other concerns the kinds of knowledge.
It may be thought that certain questions are prior to these and all others. Is knowledge possible? Can we know anything? The man the skeptic challenges is one who thinks that knowledge is attainable and who may even claim to possess knowledge of some sort. But the issue between the skeptic and his adversaries cannot be simply formulated. Its formulation depends in part upon the meaning given knowledge and the various things with which it is sometimes contrasted, such as belief and opinion, or ignorance and error. It also depends in part on the meaning of truth and probability. It would seem, therefore, that some consideration of the nature of knowledge should precede the examination of the claims concerning knowledge which provoke skeptical denials.
The theory of knowledge is a field of many disputes. Most of the major varieties of doctrine or analysis are represented in the tradition of the great books. But the fact that knowledge involves a relationship between a knower and a known seems to go unquestioned. William James expresses this insight, perhaps more dogmatically than some would allow, in the statement that knowledge “is a thoroughgoing dualism. It supposes two elements, mind knowing and thing known.… Neither gets out of itself or into the other, neither in any way is the other, neither makes the other. They just stand face to face in a common world, and one simply knows, or is known unto, its counterpart.” This remains true even when attention is turned to the special case of knowledge about knowledge or the knower knowing himself. The mind’s examination of itself simply makes the mind an object to be known as well as a knower.
This suggests a second point about the nature of knowledge which seems to be undisputed. If knowledge relates a knower to a known, then what is somehow possessed when a person claims to have knowledge, is the object known. It does not seem possible for anyone to say that he knows something without meaning that he has that thing in mind.” Some sort of signal,” James writes, “must be given by the thing to the mind’s brain, or the knowing will not occur—we find as a matter of fact that the mere existence of a thing outside the brain is not a sufficient cause for our knowing it: it must strike the brain in some way, as well as be there, to be known.” What is not in any way present to or represented in the mind is not known in any of the various senses of the word “know.” What the mind cannot reach to and somehow grasp cannot be known. The words which are common synonyms for knowing—“apprehending” and “comprehending”—convey this sense that knowledge somehow takes hold of and surrounds its object.
That knowledge is a kind of possession occasions the comparisons which have been made between knowledge and love. The ancients observed that likeness and union are involved in both. Plato, for example, suggests in the Symposium that both the knower and the lover strive to become one with their object. “Love is also a philosopher,” Diotima tells Socrates, and, as “a lover of wisdom,” the philosopher is also a lover.
With regard to some objects, love and knowledge are almost inseparable. To know them is to love them. But this does not hold for all objects, nor does the inseparability of knowledge and love in certain cases prevent their analytic distinction in all. Like is known by like, but unlikes attract each other. Furthermore, according to one theory of knowledge, expounded by Aquinas, the knower is satisfied to possess an image of the thing to be known. This image provides the likeness through which knowledge occurs; and thus, Aquinas writes, “the idea of the thing understood is in the one who understands.” The lover, on the other hand, is “inclined to the thing itself, as existing in itself.” He seeks to be united with it directly. The nobility or baseness of the object known does not affect the knower as the character of the object loved affects the lover. This understanding of the difference between knowledge and love leads Aquinas to say that “to love God is better than to know God; but, on the contrary, to know corporeal things is better than to love them.”
The principle of likeness between knower and known does not go undisputed. On the contrary, the opposite views here form one of the basic issues about the nature of knowledge. The issue is whether the thing known is actually present to the knower, existing in the mind or consciousness exactly as it exists in itself; or whether the thing is represented in the mind by a likeness of itself, through which the mind knows it. In this view, the mode of existence of the thing outside the mind is different from the way in which its representative exists in the mind.
Berkeley, at one extreme, identifies being and being known. “As to what is said of the absolute existence of unthinking things without any relation to their being perceived, that seems perfectly unintelligible,” he writes. “Their esse is percipi, nor is it possible they should have any existence, out of the minds or thinking things which perceive them.”
At the other extreme are those like Kant for whom the thing in itself is unknowable precisely because there can be no resemblance between the phenomenal order of objects represented under the conditions of experience and the noumenal order of the unconditioned. “All conceptions of things in themselves,” he writes, “must be referred to intuitions, and with us men these can never be other than sensible, and hence can never enable us to know objects as things in themselves but only as appearances.… The unconditioned,” he adds, “can never be found in this chain of appearances.”
In between these extremes there are those who agree that things exist apart from being known without ceasing to be knowable, but who nevertheless differ with respect to whether the thing exists in reality in the same way that it exists in the mind. The several forms of idealism and realism, distinguished in the chapter on IDEA, mark the range of traditional differences in the discussion of this difficult problem.
For any Theory of what knowledge is there is a distinction between knowledge and ignorance—between having or not having something in mind. Nor does anyone confuse ignorance and error. The mind in error claims to know that of which, in fact, it is ignorant. This, as Socrates points out in the Meno, makes it easier to teach a person aware of his ignorance than a person in error; for the latter, supposing himself to know, resists the teacher. Hence getting a person to acknowledge ignorance is often the indispensable first step in teaching.
But though the difference between knowledge and ignorance and that between ignorance and error seems to be commonly understood, it does not follow that everybody similarly agrees upon the difference between knowledge and error. This much is agreed, that to know is to possess the truth about something, whereas to err is to be deceived by falsity mistaken for truth. The disagreement of the philosophers begins, however, when the meaning of truth and falsity is examined.
Truth is one thing for those who insist upon some similarity between the thing known and that by which it is known or represented in the mind. It is another for those who think that knowledge can be gained without the mediation of images or representations. In the first case, truth will consist in some kind of correspondence between what the mind thinks or understands and the reality it tries to know. In the other, truth will be equivalent to consistency among the mind’s own ideas.
The examination of this fundamental disagreement is reserved for the chapter on TRUTH. Here the identification of knowing with having the truth calls for the consideration of another distinction, first made by Plato. In his language, as in that of Aristotle and others, it is the difference between knowledge and opinion. Sometimes, as with Locke, a similar distinction is made in terms of knowledge and judgment; sometimes it is made in terms of knowledge and belief; sometimes in terms of adequate and inadequate, or certain and probable, knowledge.
The difference between these opposites, unlike that between knowledge and error, is not a matter of truth and falsity. There is such a thing as “right opinion,” according to Socrates, and it is “not less useful than knowledge.” Considering the truth so far as it affects action, Socrates claims that the man with right opinion “will be just as good a guide if he thinks the truth, as he who knows the truth.” The difference between right opinion and knowledge is here expressed by the contrast between the words “thinks” and “knows.” It does not consist in the truth of the conclusion, but in the way that conclusion has been reached or is held by the mind.
The trouble with right opinion as compared with knowledge, Socrates explains, is that it lacks stability and permanence. Right opinions are useful “while they abide with us … but they run away out of the human soul and do not remain long, and therefore they are not of much value until they are fastened by the tie of the cause”—or, in other words, until they are fixed in the mind by the reasons on which they are grounded. “When they are bound,” Socrates declares, “they have the nature of knowledge and … they are abiding.”
At this point in his conversation with Meno, Socrates makes the unusual confession that “there are not many things which I profess to know, but this is most certainly one of them,” namely, that “knowledge differs from true opinion.” It may be that Socrates claims to know so little because he regards knowledge as involving so much more than simply having the truth, as the man of right opinion has it. In addition to having the truth, knowledge consists in seeing the reason why it is true.
This criterion can be interpreted to mean that a proposition which is neither self-evident nor demonstrated expresses opinion rather than knowledge. Even when it happens to be true, the opinion is qualified by some degree of doubt or some estimate of probability and counterprobability. In contrast, when the mind has adequate grounds for its judgment, when it knows that it knows and why, it has the certainty of knowledge.
For some writers, such as Plato, certitude is as inseparable from knowledge as truth is. To speak of “a false knowledge as well as a true” seems to him impossible; and “uncertain knowledge” is as self-contradictory a phrase as “false knowledge.”
Others use the word “knowledge” more loosely to cover both adequate and inadequate knowledge, the probable as well as the certain. They make a distinction within the sphere of knowledge that is equivalent to the distinction between knowledge and opinion.
Spinoza, for example, distinguishes three kinds of knowledge. He groups the perception of individual things through the bodily senses, which he calls “knowledge from vague experience,” with knowledge “from signs” which depends on ideas formed by the memory and imagination. “These two ways of looking at things,” he writes, “I shall hereafter call knowledge of the first kind—opinion or imagination.” In contrast, that which is derived “from our possessing common notions and adequate ideas of the properties of things,” he calls “reason and knowledge of the second kind.”
The third kind, which he calls “intuitive science,” is that sort of knowing which “advances from an adequate idea of certain attributes of God to the adequate knowledge of the essence of things.” Knowledge of the second and third kinds, he maintains, “is necessarily true.” That there can be falsity in the first kind, and only there, indicates that it is not genuinely knowledge at all, but what other writers would insist upon calling “opinion.”
The several meanings of the word “belief” are determined by these distinctions. Sometimes belief is associated with opinion, sometimes with knowledge, and sometimes it is regarded as an intermediate state of mind. But in any of these meanings belief stands in contrast to make-believe, and this contrast has a bearing on knowledge and opinion as well. To know or to opine puts the mind in some relation to the real or actual rather than the merely possible, and subjects it to the criteria of truth and falsity. The fanciful or imaginary belongs to the realm of the possible (or even the impossible) and the mind in imagining is fancy-free—free from the restraints and restrictions of truth and reality.
Skepticism in its most extreme form takes the position that there is nothing true or false. But even those who, like Montaigne, deny certitude with respect to everything except matters of religious faith, do not go this far.
In his Apology for Raymond Sebond he concedes that if opinions are weighed as more or less probable, their truth or falsity is implied—at least as being the limit which an increasing probability or improbability approaches. Referring to ancient skeptics of the Academic school, he comments on the fact that they acknowledged “some things were more probable than others”—as, for example, that snow is white rather than black. The more extreme skeptics, the Pyrrhonians, he points out, were bolder and also more consistent. They refused to incline toward one proposition more than toward another, for to do so, Montaigne declares, is to recognize “some more apparent truth in this one than in that.” How can men “let themselves be inclined toward the likeness of truth,” he asks, “if they know not the truth? How do they know the semblance of that whose essence they do not know?”
In this respect Montaigne’s own skepticism tends to be of the more moderate variety, since, in the realm of action at least, he would admit the need for judgments of probability. But in all other respects, he takes a firm skeptical stand that nothing is self-evident, nothing has been proved. The contradictory of everything has been asserted or argued by someone. “There cannot be first principles for men,” he writes, “unless the Divinity has revealed them; all the rest—beginning, middle, and end—is nothing but dreams and smoke … every human presupposition and every enunciation has as much authority as another.… The impression of certainty is a certain token of folly and extreme uncertainty.”
The skeptical extreme is represented in the great books only through references to it for the purpose of refutation. Aristotle in the Metaphysics, for example, reports the position of those who say that all propositions are true or that all propositions are false, and who therefore deny the principle of contradiction and with it the distinction between true and false. But if all propositions are true, then the proposition “Some propositions are false” is also true; if all propositions are false, the proposition “All propositions are false” is also false. The skeptic may reply, of course, that he is not checked by arguments which try to make him contradict himself, for he does not mind contradicting himself. To this there is only one answer, which is not to argue with the skeptic any further.
From the skeptic’s point of view his position is irrefutable so long as he does not allow himself to accept any of the standards by which refutation can be effected. From his opponent’s point of view, complete skepticism is self-refuting because if the skeptic says anything definite at all, he appears to have some knowledge or at least to hold one opinion in preference to another. His only choice is to remain silent. If he insists upon making statements in defiance of self-contradiction, his opponent can do nothing but walk away.
“It may seem a very extravagant attempt of the skeptics to destroy reason by argument and ratiocination,” Hume writes, “yet this is the grand scope of all their enquiries and disputes.” He has in mind the excessive skepticism, or Pyrrhonism, from which he tries to distinguish a mitigated and beneficial form of skepticism. Referring to Berkeley’s arguments against the independent reality of matter or bodies, Hume says their effect is skeptical, despite Berkeley’s professed intention to the contrary. That his arguments are skeptical “appears from this, that they admit of no answer and produce no conviction. Their only effect is to cause that momentary amazement and irresolution and confusion, which is the result of skepticism.”
Here and elsewhere, as in his comment on Descartes’s skeptical method of doubting everything which can be doubted, Hume does not seem to think that excessive skepticism is refutable or even false. But it is impractical. “The great subverter of Pyrrhonism or the excessive principles of skepticism,” he says, “is action, and employment, and the occupations of life.” Extreme skepticism becomes untenable in thought the moment thought must face the choices of life and take some responsibility for action.
There is, however, “a more mitigated skepticism or academical philosophy which may be both durable and useful.” This, according to Hume, consists in becoming “sensible of the strange infirmities of human understanding,” and consequently in “the limitation of our enquiries to such subjects as are best adapted to the narrow capacity of human understanding.”
His own view of the extent and certainty of human knowledge seems to him to exemplify such mitigated skepticism in operation. The only objects with respect to which demonstration is possible are quantity and number. Mathematics has the certitude of knowledge, but it deals only with relations between ideas, not with what Hume calls “matters of fact and existence.” Such matters “are evidently incapable of demonstration.” This is the sphere of “moral certainty,” which is not a genuine certainty, but only a degree of probability sufficient for action. Probabilities are the best that experimental reasoning or inquiry about matters of fact can achieve. If probability is characteristic of opinion rather than knowledge, then we can have nothing better than opinion concerning real existences.
G. H. Hardy seems to agree with Hume on the distinction between mathematical knowledge and knowledge of reality when he notes that “a chair may be a collection of whirling electrons, or an idea in the mind of God: each of these accounts of it may have its merits, but neither conforms at all closely to the suggestions of common sense.”
The diametrical opposite to the extreme of skepticism would have to be a dogmatism which placed no objects beyond the reach of human knowledge, which made no distinction between degrees of knowability and admitted equal certitude in all matters. Like excessive skepticism this extreme is not a position actually held in the great books. All the great thinkers who have considered the problem of human knowledge have set limits to man’s capacity for knowledge. They have placed certain objects beyond man’s power to apprehend at all, or have distinguished between those which he can apprehend in some inadequate fashion, but cannot comprehend. They have indicated other objects concerning which his grasp is adequate and certain.
They all adopt a “mitigated skepticism”—to use Hume’s phrase—if this can be taken to mean avoiding the extremes of saying that nothing is knowable at all and that everything is equally knowable. But they differ in the criteria they employ to set the limits of knowledge and to distinguish between the areas of certainty and probability.
Consequently they differ in their determination of the knowability of certain types of objects, such as God or the infinite, substance or cause, matter or spirit, the real or the ideal, the self or the thing in itself.
For example, Plato and Aristotle agree that knowledge must be separated from opinion and even appeal to certain common principles in making that separation; but they do not define the scope of knowledge in the same way, as is indicated by their disagreement about the knowability of sensible things. Nor do Descartes and Locke, Francis Bacon and Spinoza, Hume and Kant agree about the knowability of God or of the soul or about the conditions any object must meet in order to be knowable. All alike proceed from a desire to be critical. Each criticizes what other men have proposed as knowledge and each proposes a new method by which the pursuit of knowledge will be safeguarded from illusory hopes or endless controversy.
In this last respect the moderns depart most radically from their medieval and ancient predecessors. At all times men have been interested in examining knowledge itself as well as in exercising their powers to know. But in the earlier phase of the tradition knowledge about knowledge does not seem to take precedence over all other inquiries or to be prerequisite to them. On the contrary, the ancients proceed as if the study of knowledge necessarily presupposed the existence of knowledge. With them the examination takes place because the mind is essentially reflexive rather than for reasons of self-criticism.
But beginning with Descartes’s Discourse on the Method, in which a method of universal doubt is proposed to clear the ground before the foundations of the sciences can be laid, the consideration of knowing is put before any attempt to know.
Sometimes, as with Descartes and Bacon, the emphasis is upon a new method which will at last establish knowledge on a firm footing or advance learning. Sometimes, as with Locke and Hume, attention is given first of all to the faculty of understanding itself.
“If we can find out,” says Locke, “how far the understanding can extend its views, how far it has faculties to attain certainty, and in what cases it can only judge and guess, we may learn to content ourselves with what is attainable by us in this state.… When we know our own strength, we shall the better know what to undertake with hopes of success; and when we have well surveyed the powers of our own minds, and made some estimate of what we may expect from them, we shall not be inclined either to sit still, and not set our thoughts to work at all, in despair of knowing anything; nor, on the other side, question everything, and disclaim all knowledge, because some things are not to be understood.”
Hume also proposes that a study of human understanding precede everything else, to “show from an exact analysis of its powers and capacity” what subjects it is or is not fitted to investigate. “There is a truth and falsehood in all propositions on this subject which lie not beyond the compass of human understanding.” No one can doubt that a science of the mind—or knowledge about knowing—is possible unless he entertains “such a skepticism as is entirely subversive of all speculations, and even action.”
Disagreeing with the principles of Locke and Hume, as well as with their conclusions, Kant does approve the priority they give to the question of the possibility of knowing certain objects. To proceed otherwise, as Kant charges most other philosophers with doing, is dogmatism. The use of the word “critique” in the title of Kant’s three major works signifies his intention to construct a critical philosophy which does not presume that “it is possible to achieve anything in metaphysic without a previous criticism of pure reason.” He does not object to what he calls “the dogmatical procedure of reason” in the development of science, but only after reason’s self-criticism has determined just how far reason can go. For Kant, as for Bacon, dogmatism and skepticism are the opposite excesses which only a critical method can avoid. Russell attributes to Kant his “having made evident the philosophical importance of the theory of knowledge”; and also his “having perceived that we have a priori knowledge which is not purely ‘analytic’, i.e. such that the opposite would be self-contradictory.”
These two different approaches to the theory of knowledge seem to result in different conclusions concerning the nature and scope of human knowledge. Those who begin with the established sciences and merely inquire into their foundations and methods appear to end with unqualified confidence in man’s ability to know. Those who make the inquiry into the foundations and methods of science a necessary preparation for the development of the sciences tend for the most part to set narrower boundaries to the area of valid knowledge. The two approaches also affect the way in which the various kinds of knowledge are distinguished and compared.
There are two sorts of comparison involved in the classification of kinds of knowledge. One is a comparison of human knowledge with divine, or with angelic knowledge and the knowledge of brute animals. The other is a comparison of the parts or modes of human knowledge according to such criteria as the objects to be known, the faculties engaged in the process of knowing, and the manner of their operation. Though made separately, those two comparisons are seldom independent of one another. As the nature of man is conceived in relation to other beings, superior or inferior to himself, his faculties will be rated accordingly, and his power as a knower will suggest the methods or means available to him for knowing.
Aquinas, for example, attributes to man the kind of knowledge appropriate to his station in the hierarchy of beings. Man is superior to the brutes because he has a faculty of reason in addition to the faculties of sense and imagination which he shares with them. Man is inferior to purely spiritual beings—the angels and God—because, since he is corporeal, his intellect cannot function independently of his bodily senses and imagination. Unlike the angels and God, he is not a purely intellectual being.
Accordingly, the essential characteristics of human knowledge are, first, that it is always both sensitive and intellectual, never merely sense perception as with the brutes or pure intellectual intuition as with the angels; second, that its appropriate object is the physical world of sensible, material things, with respect to which the senses enable man to know the existence of individuals, while the intellect apprehends their universal natures; and, finally, that the way in which the human mind knows the natures of things is abstractive and discursive, for the intellect draws its concepts from sense and imagination and proceeds therefrom by means of judgment and reasoning.
This analysis denies innate ideas. It denies man’s power to apprehend ideas intuitively or to use them intuitively in the apprehension of things. It can find no place for a distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge, since sense perception and rational activity contribute elements to every act of knowing. It affirms that knowledge is primarily of real existence, not of the relations between ideas; but it does not limit human knowledge to the changing temporal things of the material universe. Though these are the objects man is able to know with greatest adequacy, he can also know something of the existence and nature of immaterial and eternal beings.
Yet, according to Aquinas, even when man’s knowledge rises above the realm of experienceable things, it is obtained by the same natural processes and involves the cooperation of the senses with reason. The theologian does, however, distinguish sharply between knowledge gained through man’s own efforts and knowledge received through divine revelation. In addition to all knowledge acquired by the natural exercise of his faculties, man may be elevated by the supernatural gift of knowledge—the wisdom of a faith surpassing reason.
The foregoing summary illustrates, in the case of one great doctrine, the connection between an analysis of the kinds of knowledge and a theory of the nature and faculties of man in relation to all other things. There is no point in this analysis which is not disputed by someone—by Plato or Augustine, Descartes, Spinoza, or Locke, by Hume, Kant, or James. There are many points on which others agree—not only Aristotle and Bacon, but even Augustine, Descartes, and Locke.
These agreements or disagreements about the kinds of knowledge, or the scope of human knowledge, its faculties, and its methods, seldom occur or are intelligible except in the wider context of agreements and disagreements in theology and metaphysics, psychology and logic. Hence most of the matters considered under the heading “kinds of knowledge” receive special consideration in other chapters. The Cross-References should enable the reader to examine the presuppositions or context of the materials assembled here.
The cult of ignorance receives little or no attention in the tradition of the great books. Even those who, like Rousseau, glorify the innocence of the primitives, or who, like Erasmus, satirize the folly so often admixed with human wisdom and the foibles attending the advance of learning, do not seriously question the ancient saying that all men by nature desire to know. Nor is it generally doubted that knowledge is good; that its possession contributes to the happiness of men and the welfare of the state; that its pursuit by the individual and its dissemination in a society should be facilitated by education, by the support and freedom of scholars and scientists, and by every device which can assist men in communicating what they know to one another.
But knowledge is not valued by all for the same reason. That knowledge is useful to the productive artist, to the statesman, to the legislator, and to the individual in the conduct of his life, seems to be assumed in discussions of the applications of science in the various arts, in the consideration of statecraft, and in the analysis of virtue. In this last connection, the problem is not whether knowledge is morally useful, but whether knowledge of good and evil is identical with virtue so that sin and vice result from error or ignorance.
If there is a negative opinion here, it consists in saying that knowledge is not enough. To know is not to do. Something more than knowledge is required for acting well.
The more radical dispute about the value of knowledge concerns the goodness of knowledge for its own sake, without any regard to its technical or moral utility. Is the contemplation of the truth an ultimate end, or does the goodness of knowledge always consist in its power to effect results in the mastery of nature and the guidance of conduct? The utility of knowledge is seldom denied by those who make speculative wisdom and theoretical science good in themselves, even the highest goods, quite apart from any use to which they may be put. The contrary position, however, does not admit the special value of contemplation or the separation of truth from utility. To those who say that “the contemplation of truth is more dignified and exalted than any utility or extent of effects,” Bacon replies that “truth and utility are perfectly identical, and the effects are more of value as pledges of truth than from the benefit they confer on men.”
How knowledge and action are related is one question; how knowledge itself is divided into the speculative and practical is quite another. Bacon, for example, insists upon the necessity of distinguishing the speculative and practical branches of natural philosophy—concerned with “the search after causes and the production of effects.” Unlike Aristotle and Kant he does not use the word “practical” for the kind of knowledge which is contained in such sciences as ethics or politics, but only for the applied sciences or technology. Ethics and politics fall under what he calls “civil philosophy.”
Despite these differences in language, the way in which Bacon divides the whole sphere of knowledge closely resembles Aristotle’s tripartite classification of the sciences as theoretical, productive (or technical), and practical (or moral); and, no less, a similar threefold division by Kant. But Kant and Aristotle (and, it should be added, Aquinas) give a more elaborate analysis of these three types of knowledge, especially with regard to the principles appropriate to each, the nature of the judgments and reasoning by which they are developed, and the character and criteria of their truth.
We owe to Russell an important distinction that, surprisingly, was not made by any of his predecessors. It is the distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. “When, for example, we make a statement about Julius Caesar,” Russell points out, “it is plain that Julius Caesar himself is not before our minds, since we are not acquainted with him. We have in mind some description of Julius Caesar: ‘the man who was assassinated on the Ides of March’, ‘the founder of the Roman Empire’.” Russell goes on to say that “the chief importance of knowledge by description is that it enables us to pass beyond the limits of our private experience.” Nevertheless, “what is known by description is ultimately reducible to knowledge concerning what is known by acquaintance.”
Mortimer J. Adler, ed., The Syntopicon: An Index to the Great Ideas, Second Edition., vol. 1, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago; London; New Delhi; Paris; Seoul; Sydney; Taipei; Tokyo: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1990), 682–690.
“If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love – You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance.
The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.”
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
When a man dies, many things are said about him. The sayings tend to sum-up his life, but the crowning comment of all is always “He was a good man.” Well what does that mean? In one way or another, it means he was virtuous. Virtue has been defined many ways over the ages, but it’s important to understand one main thing –
Virtue is about action.
A man’s thoughts and feelings are sometimes noble but his life is defined by his deeds. Jesus said the sum of our life will be whether we loved God without reservation and whether we loved our neighbor as ourselves. If our aim is to glorify God, our method is to become more and more Christ-like through the power of the Holy Spirit. In his masterwork Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas wrote
“God Himself is the rule and mode of virtue. Our faith is measured by divine truth, our hope by the greatness of His power and faithful affection, our charity by His goodness. His truth, power and goodness outreach any measure of reason.”
Love is the source of every real virtue. As C.S. Lewis said, it’s more than unselfishness because unselfishness is about how good I am. Love is about emptying the self for the good of another.
Three plates representing the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Set of three engravings from small grisaille paintings by Raphael. These paintings were made in 1507 and formed the predella (lower section) of an altarpiece by Raphael for the Baglione family in Perugia, the central panel of which showed the Deposition of Christ (Rome, Galleria Borghese). The three predella sections are now in the Vatican Gallery.
This English term, meaning “moral excellence,” is rarely used in modern Bible versions, but it occurs in the KJV as the rendering of Greek aretē (Phil. 4:8; 2 Pet. 1:3, 5; the KJV uses it also to translate dynamis, “power,” referring to Jesus’ miraculous ability in Mk. 5:30; Lk. 6:19; 8:46). In a few OT passages, the KJV uses “virtuous woman” to render the Hebrew phrase ʾēšet-ḥayil, which literally means “woman of power” and indicates competence or noble character (Ruth 3:11; Prov. 12:4; 31:10; cf. 31:29, “virtuously”).
Among Greek moralistic writers, especially the STOICS, the term aretē was used very frequently to indicate the highest good, the social uprightness that evokes recognition, merit, and honor. Both PAUL and PETER employ this term in lists of positive moral traits (Phil. 4:8 and 2 Pet. 1:5; the focus is different in 1 Pet. 2:9 [a pl. translated “praises” by the NIV and “mighty acts” by the NRSV] and 2 Pet. 1:3 [referring to God and usually translated “goodness,” but possibly meaning “power”]). Some scholars argue that the word in these lists must convey the meaning it has in Greco-Roman writings, especially in the numerous catalogs of positive and negative traits of behavior referred to as “virtue-vice lists” (cf. ABD, 6:857–59). Undoubtedly, the language used by the apostles reflects the world in which they lived, but given the Christian context, it is difficult to believe that they were merely asking their readers to conduct themselves like well-behaved Greeks. The word rather signifies the moral excellence distinctive of those who have been cleansed from their sins: it builds on faith and generates godliness and love (2 Pet. 1:5–9; cf. also the detailed discussion in P. T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC , 499–507).
Moisés Silva and Merrill Chapin Tenney, The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Q-Z (Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corporation, 2009), 1032–1033.
Theology offers the Christian believer not just a faith which demands belief, but one which makes sense intellectually. As such, theology is a necessarily intricate discipline; probing the revealed thoughts of God is no light, simple task. Christian theology done right, whether it is biblical, systematic, or historical, brings the minds of the current generation into conversation with those of past believers about the eternal things of God; it equips us to live lives pleasing to God in this world. And yet, it is boring to read.
Few disciplines approach theology for combining significance with wooden prose; in part because of the weightiness of the theologian’s claims, he must take care to write precisely. Eternal souls, after all, hang in the balance when one discusses topics of ultimate significance. But what if theology could do everything it must do (strengthen the believer, intellectually support the faith,draw principles and doctrines from the text of Scripture, rearticulate the faith for the living generation) and not be dry as dust? If this goal could be met, two things would happen. First, more people would read theological texts. Secondly, more people would enjoy reading theological texts.
Writing well belongs properly to literature. What the 18th century called belles lettres, the craft of beautiful writing, takes timeless ideas (from whatever source the author chooses to draw them) and crafts them together into a narrative; some of the most persuasive theologians of the Christian tradition have combined the rigor of theology with literary skill to produce timeless classics which proclaim the glory of God’s salvation through the ages; because the writing is so well done, the spiritual message is conveyed from generation to generation.
Two examples will serve to illustrate this claim, one medieval and one modern. Thomas Aquinas was an earth shatteringly important theologian; his Summa Theologica serves to this day as the high mark of medieval theology. In Aquinas’ quest to marry Aristotelian philosophy with medieval Catholicism, he produced a system of thought which continues to inspire philosophical and theological work. Reading the Summa, however, is an easy way to combat insomnia. Aquinas combines the highest intellectual capacity with logical form, producing a significant yet unbearably dull piece of theological philosophy. The form of his writing reads like the notes from a debate judge:
“There are three objections to my point (lists them). Here is a quote. Here is my point. Here are my replies to the three objections. Next.”
Aquinas is rich, yet we would deceive ourselves if we thought the masses could read him and find spiritual benefit from him. G. K. Chesterton tells this story about a parishioner who tried to read Aquinas:
“A lady I know picked up a book of selections from St. Thomas with a commentary; and began hopefully to read a section with the innocent heading, “The Simplicity of God.” She then laid down the book with a sigh and said, “Well, if that’s His simplicity, I wonder what His complexity is like.”
Aquinas’ significance is difficult to overstate, but in terms of practical spiritual benefit for most people, Dante would provide more spiritual nourishment. Dante took Aquinas’ theology (a hierarchy of goods and sins, a system of punishment, a vision of divine love which moves the cosmos, and a synthesis of knowledge between the Greco-Roman world and the Christian) and turned it into the first Christian epic poem. As the reader travels with Dante and Virgil through the winding road to Dis and the Adversary frozen at the Inferno’s core, we accidentally learn an enormous amount of medieval theology. By studying the balance of sins and justice Dante used, we cannot help but begin to ask questions of practical application: if Francesca and Paolo spent eternity like that for their lust, is there any of the restless wandering of lust within me? Rather than beginning with the intellect, Dante seizes our hearts and imagination and fuses them together with his poetic vision; in so doing, he also instructs our minds. Pastorally, I would not give Aquinas to just any church member; Dante I would hand out freely. Because of his literary skill, Dante guides us into the deep waters of Thomistic theology and sustains us through it.
In the modern era, I know of no greater literary theologian than C.S. Lewis. A literature professor by inclination and training, Lewis combined all the craft of a medievalist with his deep, theological studies. Consider the theological principles Lewis brings up in The Chronicles of Narnia. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe addresses multiple understandings of substitutionary atonement (as Aslan sacrifices himself for Edmund); it illustrates the curse being undone (as Aslan breathes life into stone creatures); it shows the balance of justice and mercy necessary in the divine economy (in Aslan’s explanation of the Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time). Prince Caspian shows God concerned with joy and the flourishing of his creatures; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader contains a profound image of redemption (Eustace Scrubb’s change from dragon to human and his inability to change himself). The Horse and His Boy waxes missional, reminding us that God loves all men (even Calormen). The Silver Chair contains a version of the Anselm’s Ontological Argument, as well as showing the human predilection for ignoring God’s commands. The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle reinforce each other, framing the fictional world of Narnia as one of divine beginning and ending; both are riddled with the implications of creation and redemption, displaying the hope offered by Revelation; The Last Battle concludes with a vision of heaven where all that is good in creation is brought into Aslan’s Country and made perfect, dwelling with him forever. Children who read these books, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, are being instructed in essential theological categories preparing the ground for God’s work in the gospel.
Theology is a vital, ongoing need for the Christian church. Christians are served by men who study the deep things of God and maintain the tradition of theological engagement; theology as it currently exists, however, is oriented predominantly to the academy. As such, theology only reaches those who are intellectually inclined to it. God has not reserved theology only for the intellectually elite; when paired with the craft of literature, theology becomes both accessible and enjoyable. John Bunyan and John Milton both discovered this truth. As Puritans, both were deeply read theologically and intellectually inclined. Both used their giftings to serve the church at large. For Milton, this culminated in Paradise Lost, an epic poem through which the call of God’s grace resounds to this day. For Bunyan, his pastoral work caused him to formulate his theology in the form of allegory. Pilgrim’s Progress remains one of the hallmark pieces of Protestant theology; its accessibility makes it one of the beloved texts of Christians for the past four centuries.
Jesus turned to the disciples and said, “Pray to the Lord of the Harvest that He might send workers.” Perhaps we might paraphrase that prayer, and ask God to continue raising up literary theologians who use their giftings to “sing the song again in our time” in a beautiful, accessible way.
Josh Herring is a Humanities Instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University’s Great Books program. He has written for Moral Apologetics, The Imaginative Conservative, Think Christian, and The Federalist; he loves studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.
Kurt Cobain, who ended his own life at 27 years of age once wrote in his journal “I really haven’t had that exciting of a life. There are a lot of things I wish I would have done, instead of just sitting around and complaining about having a boring life.”
Like Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in The Rye, Cobain was aware of his potential but anguished by the despair of a self-oriented worldview. Unfortunately, as with many others, death by his own hand became his lasting commentary on his life.
Suicide has been unduly ennobled by literature including historically revisionistic interpretations of the deaths of Socrates, Seneca, Cleopatra, Van Gogh, Virginia Wolfe, Silvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway. Albert Camus called it the “last great work of art.” The basis for this position is the premise that individual accountability accrues only to oneself.
In The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger wrote:
The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.
Suicide violates the imago Dei, the image of God with which we are created, and that is simply idolatry. The deeply satisfying sense of fulfillment we seek as human beings is completely realized when we love God with all of our hearts and likewise love our neighbor as ourselves.
“But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.””
D I G D E E P E R
Suicide has been unduly ennobled by literature including historically revisionistic interpretations of the deaths of Socrates, Seneca, Cleopatra, Van Gogh, Virginia Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway. Albert Camus called it the “last great work of art.” The basis for this position is an axiology rooted in humanism, and its premise that individual accountability for one’s body accrues only to oneself. To the humanist, life is individually arbitrary, and therein lies the fundamental basis for a Christian’s opposition to suicide. The Christian worldview is that suicide fundamentally violates the imago Dei and is, at its core idolatry in that all arguments, however compelling in their pathos ultimately rest on tenets only validated by the good of the individual rather than the glory of God.
As suicide is not expressly forbidden by Scripture, this paper will examine Biblical occurrences where suicide was either committed or considered. This selection will be representative rather than exhaustive but the exegesis will establish hermeneutic consistency toward general application. The brevity of this paper will only afford general consideration of the ethical differentiations of the sub-topics of physician assisted suicide, termination of life support, euthanasia, and mental competence but each will be examined for moral relevance to this paper’s fundamental premise. This examination will conclude that the Bible teaches that suicide is an affront to God as it devalues His image in the created person, Christ’s sacrificial death for the lost person and the Holy Spirit’s empowerment of the redeemed person.
The Image of God
Man was created in God’s image, according to His likeness (Gen 1:26). Nothing else in creation was afforded that unspeakable honor. The etymology of the imago Dei points to both the concrete and the abstract, and equates “image” and “likeness” as interchangeable. Rather than possessing a list of godly attributes, man’s preeminence in creation reflects his immortal essence. As the bearer of such, his worth is understood by Scripture to compel our loving God to the point of sacrificing His Son for our redemption (John 3:16). Any consideration of man’s moral accountability must be based on a foundation of this stewardship in worship and humility.
In her book Total Truth Nancy Pearcey pointed out that the Bible does not begin with the Fall but rather Creation, highlighting man’s value and dignity as God’s image bearer, tasked with functioning as His representative on earth. God’s acknowledgement of man’s imparted value was reflected by His ordination of capital punishment for murder on the basis of a violation of the imago Dei (Gen 9:6). Murdering one’s self is murder nonetheless.
In order to understand, at least inasmuch as we can, the significance of the imago Dei in man, we must begin with God and a clear understanding of true reality. The metaphysics of a Christian worldview is founded on the life giving triune God of Creation. Genesis describes the Holy Spirit as “breath”, and thereafter our understanding of life is inextricably linked to breath (Gen 1:2). This breath moved in the body of a humble girl and from God and mankind we received the Word (John 1:1). Christ was the fullness of God in human form and our example of human life lived in complete harmony with God’s design. To understand Christ is to understand the fullness of the imago Dei.
Like metaphysics, epistemology is foundational to our quest for sanctification. The value of life and its accompanying tenets of truth is wholly predicated the goodness of fit between man’s heart and God’s design. The humanistic devotion to reason may be joined by sophisticated methodology and theory, but it is also critically flawed by sin. Man’s reasoning, however noble is short of God’s (Isa 55:8) and no altruistic intent can reach a self-achieved and sustained righteousness (Isa 64:6).
The catalysts of suicide may vary but the common thread is the sense that life no longer has value. Absent the understood mandate of animating the gift of God’s image to the betterment of mankind, it is impossible to put suffering in context. When the disciples questioned Jesus about why a man was born blind Jesus deftly turned the conversation to God saying “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:3-4). Our proper context of epistemology is that knowledge is itself informed by action which brings glory to God. Suicide is therefore precluded in absolute.
Since Augustine, the church has consistently held suicide to be equivalent to murder. The Bible itself does not specifically forbid (nor comment) on suicide, but much may be learned from relevant citations. The Old Testament addresses six cases of suicide and the only suicide in the New Testament is that of Judas. While the brevity of this paper precludes an extensive exegesis of each, certain contextual conclusions may accurately be drawn. A superior understanding comes from other circumstances where suicide was considered but either averted or rejected, specifically the Apostle Paul as noted below.
In the Old Testament, suicide was committed by Abimelech (Judg 9:54), Saul and his armor bearer (1 Sam 31:4–5), Ahithophel (2 Sam 17:23), Zimri (1 Kgs 16:18) and Sampson (Judg 16:29–30). David Jones holds the latter case an exception as divinely approved suicide, but the logic is implicit and in no case does Scripture praise the act explicitly as either holy or acceptable. The Bible presents each death as an act of self rather than that of a martyr who died at another’s hand for the sake of the Kingdom. Only the suicide of Judas is mentioned in the New Testament and far from being treated as an act of vindication, Jesus said it would have been better if he had never been born (Matt 26:24). In contrast, both Judas and Peter betrayed Jesus and each felt remorse, but only Peter reconciled his transgression with Jesus who affirmed that Peter had truly given his life to be lived for the glory of God (John 21:18) while Judas’ self-absorbed remorse led to his self-absorbed death.
The most compelling perspective of suicide in context comes from the Apostle Paul. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul acknowledged a desire to leave this world with its troubles. In a verse frequently quoted, Paul said “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21) and he provided an additional remark in the following verse that “I do not know which to choose” (Phil 1:22). The Apostle was in constant peril and was, at the time of this writing imprisoned in Rome. Acknowledging his dire predicament, Paul presented Scripture’s most compelling argument against suicide. He wrote that it would be individually better (selfishly) for him to die and be with the Lord, but the greater good would be served by his continued life in service to others for Christ’s sake (Phil 1:24).
Whether Paul was actually considering suicide or employing a rhetorical literary device, his point is clear. Rather than kill himself as a sacrifice to himself, he presented his body as a living sacrifice to the Lord (Rom 12:1). As Thomas Aquinas wrote in Summa Theologica, “Therefore to bring death upon oneself in order to escape the other afflictions of this life is to adopt a greater evil in order to avoid a lesser.” Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God will all of our being (Matt 22:37) and suicide is the ultimate and complete abdication of that cardinal accountability.
Suicide breaks the greatest commandment and it also breaks the second. Jesus said we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:39) and suicide fails in both regards. Beyond the fact that suicide is not loving oneself (Eph 5:29) it also deprives God of a servant to the world. As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “your bodies are not your own, you were bought with a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (1 Cor 6:20). Nancy Pearcey introduced an interesting aspect of our interrelationship to our neighbor by linking the Trinity to the imago Dei that is woven into our collective human race. As Pearcey has it, the collectivism and individualism which exists as a mystery of the Godhead is also present in mankind. She says “the Trinity implies that relationships are not created by sheer choice but are built into the very essence of human nature.” The act of suicide breaks the second greatest commandment more profoundly than can ever be fully understood in our life on earth.
Medical Ethical Considerations
Theologically, the establishment of suicide as a sin is relatively easy given its absolute negative juxtaposition to the living image of God which is the fabric of mankind, but advancements in medical science have challenged suicide’s definition. Examining circumstantial gradation, at a minimum presses consideration beyond the oversimplification of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. As Mark Coppenger pointed out, the Achilles’ heel of the Categorical Imperative is that it cannot stand alone. Christian ethicists including John Kilner and Scott Rae have written extensively on the ethics of end-of-life decisions which must be made by loved ones and the medical community which effectively operationalize an individual’s wishes regarding the medical maintenance of life under terminal circumstances.
The relatively immature field of Christian bioethics seeks to provide pragmatic Scriptural guidance in an increasingly nuanced environment. Euthanasia, or “mercy killing” is of course not new. The Christian’s new dilemma has emerged from heroic and scientific life extension capacities which were unavailable even a generation ago. Simply put, absent these measures, life would end. While one is tempted to parse overt death inducing measures like euthanasia or physician assisted suicide from passive measures like withholding treatment, as Rae points out, there is no morally relevant difference between killing and allowing to die. The dilemma has drawn no clear consensus, even from conservative Christian leaders. While Kilner holds any form of suicide or assisted suicide as “unthinkable”, Rae writes that “the sanctity-of-life principle does not require that every patient receive indefinitely the most aggressive treatment available.”
Suicide is a sin. Like every sin, its commission affects many beyond the sinner. An individual considering suicide might conclude they are acting alone under rightful control of their own person, and a humanistic worldview would agree. Unfortunately, the same worldview is pervasive in the City of Man which Augustine described, and each of its foundational tenets stand as an affront to God. Ironically, the humanist worldview might seem conducive to a strong sense of self-esteem given its egocentric construct, but as Albert Mohler points out, the current generation of children raised by its precepts in education and parental guidance are increasingly less capable of coping with psychological stress. Mohler, the leader of an educational institution observes that college administrators are seeing increased problems including “binge drinking, self-mutilation, and even suicide.” Empirical evidence is difficult to obtain, but evidence nonetheless abounds. In his book The Real Las Vegas: Life Beyond the Strip, David Littlejohn writes that the fruit of an unfettered lifestyle of self-indulgence is reflected in Nevada’s grim statistics including the highest incidence of cirrhosis of the liver, the highest rate of abortion and teen pregnancies and a suicide rate which is double the national average.
In his book Suicide, sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that the chief factor in suicide causation was a personal disconnection to society which he termed “anomie”. According to Durkheim, an individual’s enriched participation in society was key to mitigating an increased isolation conducive to suicide. While Durkheim’s work has contributed to our collective understanding of the power of extended communities of care, it overlooks the greatest factor of human life stability which is none less than the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Regardless of extenuating factors, real hopes begins with an understanding that that root of the horrific problem lies in the spiritual realm where mankind faces an adversary, who as Peter has it is “seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet 5:8). The answer can only be truly understood to be the Holy Spirit who is greater (1 John 4:4). Destroying the body annihilates the temple from which the Holy Spirit may empower the individual through any dire circumstances.
An average of 33,000 suicides occur each year in the United States, making suicide among the top five causes of death. This paper has focused on the sinful nature of suicide, but unlike other sins, suicide affords no opportunity for repentance and restoration. It is therefore imperative that the church take an active role in understanding and preventing suicide rather than only teaching theology. Studies of suicide survivors have shown that while no single factor leads to self-inflicted death, the complex causes can be better understood and mitigated by an extended community of care in which the church is ideally positioned. Christian counseling is most effective when the client has a foundational positive affiliation with the church which existed prior to their crisis. Clearly it is the church’s responsibility to provide spiritual and emotional triage but all tactical help pales in comparison to the benefits of an individual’s participation in active church family life.
Death is the inevitable conclusion of the human body. For the Christian, this is not to be feared but rather gladly anticipated knowing to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8). Until we die, we are God’s servants, living for His glory, waking every morning knowing we are still on the earth for a reason. This reason for our existence answers the quest for meaning and the answer may only be found in repentance, the relinquishment of self-worship, and the joy of living under the Lordship of Christ to the glory of God.
The Christian worldview is the theological grid through which every decision of life and death must pass. The only proper perspective is through the eyes of God who created us in His image and has acted in unspeakable sacrifice to redeem us back to Himself. Life and death has always been set as a choice before us (Deut 30:15) and it is God’s desire that we should choose life.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. 2nd ed. Viewforth Great Books Series, 2. Los Angeles, CA: Viewforth Press, 2012.
Augustine. The City of God. Writings of Saint Augustine,, 6, 7, 8. New York,: Fathers of the Church, inc., 1950.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. 1st American ed. New York,: Knopf, 1955.
Coppenger, Mark T. Moral Apologetics for Contemporary Christians : Pushing Back against Cultural and Religious Critics. B&H Studies in Christian Ethics. Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 2011.
Durkheim, Emile. Suicide, a Study in Sociology. Glencoe, Ill.,: Free Press, 1951.
Freedman, David Noel. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 1st ed. 6 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Jones, David W., and Daniel R. Heimbach. An Introduction to Biblical Ethics. B & H Studies in Biblical Ethics. Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic, 2013.
Kilner, John Frederic. Why the Church Needs Bioethics : A Guide to Wise Engagement with Life’s Challenges. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011.
Kilner, John Frederic, C. Christopher Hook, and Diane B. Uustal. Cutting-Edge Bioethics : A Christian Exploration of Technologies and Trends. A Horizon in Bioethics Series Book. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.
Knight, George R. Philosophy & Education : An Introduction in Christian Perspective. 4th ed. Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2006.
Littlejohn, David. The Real Las Vegas : Life Beyond the Strip. Oxford ; New York: Oxford Unviersity Press, 1999.
Melick, Richard R. Philippians, Colossians, Philemon. The New American Commentary, 32. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1991.
Mohler, R. Albert. Culture Shift : Engaging Current Issues with Timeless Truth. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Multnomah Books, 2008.
Oden, Thomas C. Pastoral Counsel. Classical Pastoral Care Series, 3. New York: Crossroad, 1989.
Pearcey, Nancy. Total Truth : Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. Study guide ed. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2005.
Rae, Scott B. Moral Choices : An Introduction to Ethics. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2009.
United States. Congress. House. Committee on Armed Services. Subcommittee on Military Personnel. The Current Status of Suicide Prevention Programs in the Military : Hearing before the Subcommittee on Military Personnel of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, One Hundred Twelfth Congress, First Session, Hearing Held September 9, 2011. Washington: U.S. G.P.O, 2012.
Glory be to God for dappled things— For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough; And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim. All things counter, original, spáre, strange; Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?) With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím; He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change: Práise hím.
Michael Graves recites Pied Beauty
Your eyes will see the King in His beauty; They will behold a far-distant land.
“Beauty is the splendour of truth,” observes Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and to explain his passion for beauty, Stephen draws upon the thoughts of Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, among others. Metaphysics asks the question – “What is real?” and philosophy and literature have long since tried to answer. What we call love at first sight is that mysterious moment when our eyes tell us we are gazing at something (usually someone) so beautiful it at once fulfills a longing in our hearts and answers questions we have no words to ask.
We think it is sexual, but there is a fine line between the longing beauty of art and the filth of pornography, but as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity “we know it when we see it.” Our understanding of beauty always goes directly to our values. Today we worry about the Unesco world heritage sites as ISIS destroys one after another. I’m reminded of the day in 1972 that Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was damaged by a vandal. I thought of that event as I stood before the masterpiece for the first time and wondered how anyone could want to destroy something so beautiful, so magnificent, so obviously from the heart of God.
That was it – my moment of epiphany. I looked past the marble and saw Mary holding her dead Son and I knew: She was thinking the same thing.