William Abraham’s book is a pleasure to read, not just for its insight, clarity, and wit, but also for its bold invitation to “reconceive,” and even “reinvent” contemporary theology (p. 22). Describing himself as “a retrievalist and a renewalist” (p. 32), he’s also something of a cheerleader, urging theologians to “keep their nerve” (pp. 62, 127, 139).

Oxford University Press, 2018

I was especially interested to see how Abraham employs the theology of Thomas Aquinas, one of the figures he explores in taking “soundings in the history of the Christian tradition” (p. 1). He cautions us about using Aquinas as a kind of escape hatch from the “extraordinary intellectual demands” of theology—reducing theology “to a sub-discipline of history by returning to some great figure of the past, say, Rahner, Barth, or Aquinas . . . and sheltering within his shadow” (p. 7). I wondered for a moment if I’d spent my academic career sheltering in Aquinas’s very ample shadow, but decided that I see Aquinas not as a mere historical figure, but a crucial resource for contemporary theology. In that light, I will offer some reflections on how Aquinas may contribute to Abraham’s presentation of divine simplicity, creation ex nihilo, and divine providence.

Divine Simplicity

By grounding his discussion of divine attributes in the doctrine of the Trinity, Abraham awakens us to a sense of God’s power and love, and so opens a way to “radical trust in God” (p. 55). Various “clusters” of divine attributes flow naturally from these considerations (pp. 57–60). The flow stops, however, with divine simplicity. Abraham thinks that, in the traditional understanding of this attribute, “there is no difference in meaning between the various predicates we apply to God.” He finds this “incoherent” (p. 63).The divine attributes are not just a jumble of synonyms, but distinct ways that we know and speak of God. Aquinas may be helpful here since he maintains that the divine attributes “have diverse meanings” even though, ontologically, each is one with the divine essence. The difference between the way that we understand and speak of God and the way that God exists arises from the fact that (surprise!) we know God “in an imperfect manner.”Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica [ST] I, 13, 4, co. (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947).

The divine attributes are not just a jumble of synonyms, but distinct ways that we know and speak of God. Our speech, however, must always be tempered with a good dose of the via negativa as we admit that our understanding falls short of the divine reality. Abraham argues that “we should resist . . . the move to draw a distinction between God and the categories we apply to God” (p. 63). But unless we make such a distinction, we render our language about God univocal, implying, for instance, that divine goodness is the same as our narrow concept of goodness. Aquinas argues that, in speaking of God, our language must be neither univocal nor equivocal, but analogical.See ST I, 13, 5. Abraham criticizes Aquinas on this: “No theory which posits a single way of construing discourse about God is adequate; say, a theory of analogy, such as we find in Aquinas” (p. 64). But Aquinas allows that there are many ways of speaking about God, including metaphor.ST I 13, 3, ad 1. Talking about God analogically may at first seem “puzzling,” as Abraham notes, but it is not “incoherent,” and, when properly understood, may prove quite fruitful—provided we don’t lose our “intellectual nerve” (p. 63).

Creation Ex Nihilo

Abraham gives a brilliant account of the emergence of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (pp. 130–35). When speaking of this doctrine, “we work from faint analogies from our own acts of creation,” even as we recognize that “in the case of human agents we rely on prior material for standard acts of creation.” Still this difference does not render the doctrine “not intelligible to us” (p. 128). Abraham recommends that we simply view the act of creation as a “basic act” and then say no more: “Looking for more is a bogus enterprise” (pp. 128–29). But perhaps by following Aquinas in saying something more, we may gain a better sense of ex nihilo and a deeper appreciation of the abiding relationship between God and creation.

Aquinas suggests that any instance of change involves a kind of ex nihilo factor. For instance, an object can become white only if it’s not already white. It must originally lack that color if it’s to become that color. So, we might say the white color comes from the not-white.But perhaps by following Aquinas in saying something more, we may gain a better sense of ex nihilo and a deeper appreciation of the abiding relationship between God and creation. Analogously, as the white color comes to be from the not-being which is not-white, “so creation, which is the emanation of all being, is from the not-being which is nothing.”ST I, 45, 1, co.

Any product of creaturely motion or change “is made from something pre-existing”ST I, 45, 3, co. (as a statue is made from marble). Creation ex nihilo is therefore not motion, but motion can give us a clue to what it is. Motion may be described as an act or activity that belongs to both a doer and a receiver, as the act of sculpting belongs to both the sculptor who performs it and the marble that receives it. It is related to the sculptor as “action” (activity) and to the marble as “passion” (receptivity). If the motion of sculpting were removed, there would remain only the relations of action and passion: “Now, when movement is removed from action and passion, only relation remains.” Since creation involves no motion, “creation in the creature is only a certain relation to the Creator as to the principle of its being.”ST I, 45, 3, co. The upshot is that creation ex nihilo is best understood as the instantiation of a relationship—a relationship between God and creature that remains ontologically constant regarding the being of the creature and personally constant regarding divine love: “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (Ps 145:9).

Divine Providence

The basic bugaboo in the discussion of God’s providence is the question of determinism. On the one hand, by making all creaturely action dependent on God’s agency (which entails both foreknowledge and omnipotence), we seem to rob the creature of its contingency and freedom.Faced with this dilemma, the theological tendency is to diminish either human freedom or God’s influence. On the other hand, it seems no creature can do anything independently of God, the Creator “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). If we can “do nothing” apart from God (John 15:5), then we need an account of providence that explains how humans can be utterly dependent on God in all that they do, yet still act freely.

Faced with this dilemma, the theological tendency is to diminish either human freedom or God’s influence. Abraham leans towards the latter in choosing what he calls a “middle sense” of divine providence (p. 149). In his account, however, God soon begins to look like one more creaturely agent, despite Abraham’s insistence on “the crucial distinction between Creator and creature” (p. 154). He notes, for instance, that God’s cooperation in human action may be either “general or specific” and “of a greater or lesser degree” (p. 151). He describes God as “nudging us” one way or another in our choices (pp. 152–53).

In contrast, by basing his account of providence on God’s transcendence, Aquinas diminishes neither God’s influence nor our freedom. God transcends all creaturely categories. Aquinas broadly categorizes creaturely causes as necessary or contingent (which includes free human agents). Necessary causes cannot produce contingent effects since their causality is unfailing, and contingent causes cannot produce necessary effects since their causality is inherently fallible. If we were to put God in the creaturely category of necessary causes, we would eliminate all contingency in nature (including human freedom), since a necessary cause produces only necessary effects. On the other hand, if we put God in the creaturely category of contingent causes, the certitude of God’s promises would be up for grabs, since contingent causes can produce only contingent effects that may or may not happen. The way out of this dilemma is to recognize that God transcends these creaturely categories. All things “depend on the divine will as on a first cause, which transcends the order of necessity and contingency.” God acts in and through contingent and free causes as the very source of their contingency and freedom. No created cause can act in this way since “every other cause already falls under the order of necessity or contingency; hence, either the cause itself must be able to fail or, if not, its effect is not contingent, but necessary. The divine will, on the other hand, is unfailing; yet not all its effects are necessary, but some are contingent.”Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s On Interpretation, Book I, lect. 14, no. 22, in Aristotle: On Interpretation. Commentary by St. Thomas and Cajetan, trans. J. Oesterle (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1962), 118–19.

God’s omnipotence does not defeat human freedom but is its source:

When a cause is efficacious to act, the effect follows upon the cause, not only as to the thing done, but also as to its manner of being done or of being. . . . Since then the divine will is perfectly efficacious, it follows not only that things are done, which God wills to be done, but also that they are done in the way that he wills. Now God wills some things to be done necessarily, some contingently, to the right ordering of things, for the building up of the universe.ST I, 19, 8, co. For a more extensive presentation of this account of providence, including the question of evil, see Michael J. Dodds, OP, Unlocking Divine Action: Contemporary Science and Thomas Aquinas (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 205–10, 236–43.

Because God is the omnipotent Creator, his primary causality can act through the secondary causality of free human beings to instantiate not just the being of human actions, but also the mode of their being (as free and contingent).

I am very grateful to William Abraham for his careful and creative work in this book and look forward to the fourth volume of the series.