A Contrario: Aquinas and Faith-Orientation

I mean here to treat briefly, if haphazardly, of some gleanings from Aquinas’ considerations of faith; especially faith as propositional.  John Bishop, via the Stanford Encyclopedia (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/faith/), informs that interpreting the famous Dominican is difficult as ‘faith’ is primarily used to describe a mental state (I agree with…) while St. Thomas uses the term to mean the way a believer is related to God.  Taken in this sense, belief is not primarily propositional.  Perhaps, as Bishop suggests, belief in does not perfectly align with belief that

This is not to suggest that Aquinas is unconcerned with propositional aspect of faith.  Rather, there is room to consider the will and ration in a Thomistic model.  He then describes faith, in the Second Article, Part II from Summa, as ‘a mean between science and opinion’, both of which concern propositions, but the act of believing them concerns less their propositional value than their origination in God and their leading towards Him (as Terence Penulham via Bishop).  Faith is then based not primarily on content, but rather on divine testimony (akin in my mind to the role of prophecy for Ghazali – perhaps worth scaring up as Aquinas ought at least to have been familiar with an Avicennan model of prophecy). 

Further, as noted in Objection 2, faith is explained by way of symbol.  This is exceptionally strange if the content of the faith-object is purely propositional but unsurprising when we note that the action of the believer ends in a thing, not a proposition.  I.e. I think, my faith act is incomplete if it stops at agreement; Christ called followers to actively align their footsteps (and far more) with His.  Faith is not purely rational; and neither is truth.  Aye, it is propositionally understood, but it is also understood symbolically – both by analogy and combining of similar thoughts.  There is space for metaphor so long as our object is right action.  “For as in science we do not form propositions, except in order to have knowledge about things through their means, except in order to have knowledge about things through their means, so is it in faith. (Reply Obj. 2)”

So then, faith can be understood propositionally — but not solely.  The primary expression of faith is submitting the will.  Which then is better, faith as typically understood or faithfulness?  One certainly costs more of the seeker — perhaps everything.

Mis-phil: Re-specting Skeptics Against Skepticism

This is one of those thoughts which strike me, which few could care to approve or discredit, and which I will of natural course forget. Worse, I can’t even answer the question – but perhaps one day I shall be able to and then I shall look back upon these silly notes, scrawled as they are, and wonder who the person was who misunderstood to such an extent not one author, but two!

So, it is with some hesitation that I posit something I may inevitably disprove or discredit or cease to care about, but learning is by means of connections and answering questions and finally understanding why our questions were poorly formed to begin. The path must begin at the toes of these hills and only far later shall we see what routes we should have pursued instead.


In the preface to his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (first published in 1713), Berkeley (1685-1753) attacks the exercise of abstract thought for the purpose of speculation is “practice or the improvement and regulation of our lives and actions” where it causes distrust of our senses (the preface, p. 5 in The Liberal Arts Press’ publication of Three Dialogues, 1954).  Skepticism and paradoxes result from undue speculation – that speculation which asks us to distinguish ‘real nature’ from that which is presented to our senses.  Because we distrust our senses, for they have been known to be mis-taken, we take the thing in itself to be more real (perhaps I ‘m anachronistically importing my understanding of Kant…buyer be wary).  Berekeley wishes to remove such endless pursuits of the mind, not in the least because they distract us from what is important – amending our actions.

If I ‘ve grasped in the pre-reading a taste of that which Berkeley intends, I wonder how al-Ghazali (1058-1111) compares.  Al-Ghazali also wishes, as I understand him, to dispense with undue speculation so that right practice may result.  Of course, both Berkeley and al-Ghazali’s works provide particularly interesting voices within philosophical skepticism, particularly in dealing with causality.

The Incoherence of the Philosophers, possibly my favorite philosophical title, and a landmark of 11th century Islamic philosophico-religious thought, spends a significant portion demonstrating the ‘auto-destruction’ or unsustainable reasoning of metaphysics grounded in speculation.  As I understand him, al-Ghazali’s main objective is not that another would agree with his metaphysics, but that one would see the foolishness of making claims based on any other standard than what God affirms.  Speculation in this sense has ensnared many and leads to the undue questioning of authority.

Berkeley is speaking in a different discourse, one which I ‘m less familiar with.  But, his dialogues will necessarily concern metaphysics – that by which one tries to explain the fundamental ‘being’ of the world/reality and he means to use speculation to discredit speculation.  Whether either or neither is an occasionalist (the fascinating system in which causality is essentially denied – which first drew me to both men’s works) is ultimately immaterial.  Both men would, I think, unite behind the cause of “rescuing [the mind] from those endless pursuits” because the true pursuit ought to be right action in accord with virtue (pp. 6-7 in the preface for Three Dialogues).


I suppose to ever answer such questions I ‘ll have to read far more of both – the result of which may well be raucous laughter on my part when I retrace my footfalls.  So, in order to speculate about the ineffectiveness of speculation I have posited my own and shall see what may come of it.

Peripheral Vision – Science and the Prejudice Against Prejudice

It is usually said that the nineteenth century saw the birth of the scientific study of language in the western world. And this statement is true, if we give to the term ‘scientific’ the sense it generally bears today; it was in the course of the nineteenth century that facts of language came to be carefully and objectively investigated and then explained in terms of inductive hypotheses. It should not be forgotten, however, that this conception of science is of quite recent development. The speculative grammar of the scholastics and of their philosophical successors at Port Royal ..was scientific according to their understanding of what constituted sure knowledge.

-John Lyons, Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics (Cambridge University Press, 1971: p. 22; underlines mine)

This brings to mind my favorite class at Fuller – Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics (hermeneutic generally means ‘interpretive’ and derives from the Hermes, the Greek god of heraldry) with Merold Westphal.  We spoke of the ‘prejudice against prejudice’ to quite some extent.  I like that Lyons here provides a means to contextualize science as we understand it.  It ‘s too easy to assume that our way of scientific inquiry is surely the right method.  Like us, the medieval scholastics thought their manner of inquiry was scientific and the most rational means of approaching the study of language.

Lyons concludes:

The difference between this way of looking at linguistic questions and that which resulted in the immensely fruitful period of comparative philology was not so much that the latter was more respectful of the ‘facts’ and more careful in its observation and collection of them (this is effect, rather than cause), but by the end of the eighteenth century there had developed a general dissatisfaction with a priori and so-called ‘logical’ explanations and a preference for historical reasoning.  (Lyons, Theoretical Linguistics: pp. 22-23)

I do n’t mean to argue here that the methods of our day are more ‘scientific’ than previously, but rather; I mean to note that the concept denoted ‘scientific’ has shifted as the presuppositions of scientific inquiry have been replaced.  Having read a goodly sampling of medieval philosophy in general, I am consistently impressed by how thorough their thoughts are (this was more true once I learned of some of the nuances particular terms held).  By the measures of their methods, they were exhaustive and many of the preserved texts are brilliant within their discourse.  I mean to say that that which causes something to be characterized as ‘scientific’ has and continues to change, even as we are unaware of the flux.

So, my question is – when will our current methods of ‘scientific’ inquiry be deemed unscientific?  More interestingly, what will be the means by which our science is seen as inferior – what criteria do we foolishly violate?  Every discourse or method of philosophical inquiry has limits – each is a ‘seeing as’ and therefore something is inevitably lost on the periphery.  My question is therefore one of predictive peripheral vision in the context of the study of language.  Or, are there some prejudices in our science which ought to be preserved?

Dis-course – The Defender of Peace

Discourse II:

On the Canonic Scriptures, the Commands, Counsels, and Examples of Christ and of the Saints and Approved Doctors Who Expounded the Evangelic Law, Whereby It Is Clearly Demonstrated That the Roman or Any Other Bishop or Priest, or Clergyman, Can by Virtue of the Words of Scripture Claim or Ascribe to Himself No Coercive Rulership or Contentious Jurisdiction, Let Alone the Supreme Jurisdiction over Any Clergyman or Layman; and That, by Christ’s Counsel and Example, They Ought To Refuse Such Rulership, Especially in Communities of the Faithful, if It is Offered to Them or Bestowed on Them by Someone Having the Authority To Do So; and Again, That All Bishops, and Generally All Persons Now Called Clergymen, Must Be Subject to the Coercive Judgment or Rulership of Him Who Governs by the Authority of the Human Legislator, Especially Where this Legislator Is Christian

(Title of Chapter IV, Marsilius of Padua [ca. 1275 – ca. 1342 A.D.], italics mine)

I ‘ll admit it; I can’t resist a provocative title – especially not when it ‘s stood the test of time.  When it comes to 14th century disputes, speaking against the Church’s power has to vault to the top.  Speaking against the power of individual clergy to use coercive authority is plain daring, but what else is to be expected from an Italian who supported the Holy Roman Empire’s independence from Papal jurisdiction.

Having mentioned my own fascinations, this work clearly lends itself to those who debate the proper relation of church and state.  Having shown that the law is only good where it is applicable to the citizenry and enforced by the necessary coercive authority in Discourse I of Defensor pacis (or ‘The Defender of the Peace’) Marsilius proceeds to inquire “what power and authority, to be exercised in this world, Christ wanted to bestow and in fact (de facto) did bestow on them (St. Peter, the apostles and their successors – the bishops or priests)… (Discourse II, Ch. IV, Par. 2)” because Christ was certainly able to bestow to them whatever powers he saw fit.

If Christ had taken up temporal rule, it would have set the precedent for his followers (and therefore the Church) to go and do likewise.  Instead, he “wanted to and did exclude himself, his apostles and disciples, and their successors, the bishops or priests, from all such coercive authority or worldly rule, both by his example and by his words of counsel or command (ibid, Par. 3, italics mine)” and his followers did and taught the same.

The clearest example offered of Christ’s example to his followers is found in John 18 where Christ is questioned by Pontius Pilate, the symbol of Roman rule in Jerusalem.  As Jesus expounds for Pilate, “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would certainly fight.”  An earthly kingdom needs to be defended, but Jesus submits his person to wrongful conviction.  The most extreme measures available for one wielding coercive authority are executed upon him when he by rights could take up such authority.  But he did n’t.

Further, we see that Christ often illustrated: “‘Like is the kingdom of heaven,’ etc., but very rarely did he speak of the earthly kingdom, and if he did, he taught that it should be spurned. (ibid, Par. 6)”  Where Christ had opportunities to exact judgment, he forgave.  The force of such argument is clear when Christ, in John 6, flees those who would install him as king by force and when, in Luke 12, he refuses to act as an arbiter of between disputants.  Clearly then exerting such carnal power was against his will.  If this is his example, how should it then be followed?

In his teachings to the disciples as well, Christ leads Peter in submitting to the authority of those placed over them in the famous line: “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  But Christ is the heir of David and is therefore rightful ruler by human bloodlines in addition to his divine lordship.  If any should be exempt from Caesar’s tax or from the temple tax, it should be the Lord.  Origen, in meditating upon Matthew 17, understands it to follow from Christ’s words,

“that while men sometimes appear who through injustice seize our earthly goods, the kings of this earth send men to exact from us what is theirs. And by his example the Lord prohibits the doing of any offense, even to such men, either so that they may no longer sin, or so that they may be saved.  For the son of God, who did no servile work, gave the tribute money, having the guise of a servant which he assumed for the sake of man. (ibid, Par. 10, as quoted)”

Marsilius then avers that the bishops and priests have constructed rights to powers not given them by Christ’s example or teaching, or the teachings of the apostles and their followers.  Therefore the graspings for power to be observed in the 14th century church leadership must be of their own inventions.  Jesus’ example is not merely to submit to the just proceedings and exercises of coercive authority by imperial rulers, but even to provide undue tribute – to submit to the unjust as well!  As the Apostle in 1 Corinthians 6 states, ‘why not rather be wronged than quarrel with one another?’

In the ultimate display, Christ submitted to unjust punishment by the emperor’s representative (even though he could have submitted himself and those who followed under ecclesial authority by choosing rather to be punished by the priests).  Although Christ points out that Pilate’s authority is merely the way political affairs happen to be (de facto) and not one of right (de juro),still he submits!  In Romans 13, Paul agrees that there is no power except from God.

As Chrysostom writes:

“The rulers of the world exist in order to lord it over their subjects, to cast them into slavery and to despoil them [namely, if they deserve it] and to use them even unto death for their own advantage and glory.  But the rulers of the church are appointedin order to serve their subjects and to minister to them whatever they have received from Christ, so that they neglect their own advantage and seek to benefit their subjects, and do not refuse to die for their salvation. (ibid, Par. 13, as quoted, italics mine)”

Therefore, as pertains to power, if church leaders would follow Christ’s example and teaching, they should put off the use of coercive force and serve those placed under their care, not using them to their own advantage or glory.  For my take, such an argument is particularly persuasive.  The opportunities for abuse in ministry abound.  Where the Church has fared best it has been subject to empire without exhibiting a controlling interest therein.  Stretching Marsilius’ teaching to its fullest extent: the use of coercive force even inside the church strikes against the teaching of Christ modeled by the apostles.

Taking as a case study the Mars Hill church discipline controversy, the potentials for abuse in church leadership are clearly demonstrated.  The Scriptures describe models for approaching one who has wronged you and for dealing with the unrepentant one who sins openly.  But, the role of church discipline is to bring the offending brother or sister to repentance, not to create an official record of wrongs or maintain a paper-trail so that the fruits of repentance are displayed for the benefit of church leadership.  If one comes to repentance, there is no further responsibility for the church other than to serve.  Recommending counseling, offering accountability, and offerings of help fit Chrysostom’s model in today’s context.  Enforcing one interpretation and requiring that another repent in the way which satisfies your church model is way off base.  I do n’t claim to know with all veracity what has occurred in this situation, but the example demonstrates how damaging the use of coercive force by church leadership can be in a specific context.

At best I can seek to follow in the manner I believe Christ laid out for us.  Marsilius may not have final say, but I think his teachings are relevant to our discussions today and I ‘m curious to hear how such a viewpoint is helpful or unhelpful.