How might we integrate the study of ethics and theology? In Renewing Moral Theology, Daniel Westberg takes this project head-on. He approaches it from the perspective of Thomism, the philosophical-theological framework of Saint Thomas Aquinas which is itself influenced by Aristotle. The book therefore provides a strong introduction to the Thomistic view of moral theology.
The book is not, like many, a handbook for discussing various moral issues. Some hot-button topics are raised, but they are not the focus. Westberg’s focus is, instead, much broader. He provides here a metaphysical basis for ethical reasoning, while addressing some of the main questions that come up regarding that framework. Thus, this is a book that encourages further reasoning and research rather than trying to answer some laundry list of moral questions (such as questions of sexuality, abortion, capital punishment, and the like). The focus is on giving an overarching metaphysical basis for using one’s reasoning in ethical situations, not handing the answers to such questions to the readers. This alone makes it valuable because many books on ethical reasoning unfortunately do not address the pressing metaphysical or metaethical questions that come up in thinking about morality.
Thomism has much to offer when it comes to moral theology. The system gives a framework for analyzing things like “being,” “right and wrong,” motivations, emotions, and more.
Westberg provides valuable insights into a number of key issues for ethics from a Christian perspective. Incorporating the holistic approach of Thomism into ethics, he notes that emotions do play a vital role in our practical reasoning and the way we approach moral questions. Emotions are often ignored or treated as frivolous in treatments of objective morality, and to have them incorporated into the study was a much-needed corrective.
He also gives excellent illustrations of and counters objections to the “double-effect” principle, which is the notion that moral actions can have two outcomes, one intended and one not, which allows for right action to be taken even if a wrong outcome will occur or is known to occur. Thus, for example, he treats the notion of a surgery which would kill an unborn child but save the mother. The intent of the surgery is to save the mother, not kill the child, but both are “effects” (hence double-effect) of the procedure. There are some key objections to using this principle to allow for certain moral actions, such as the apparent parsing down of moral choices into separate spheres of decision and intent, but Westberg counters them deftly. In doing so, he provides a strong defense of this critical ethical principle.
Examples are abundant throughout the book, and they constantly are used in ways that helpfully illustrate the point at hand. Some of the more obscure-seeming aspects of how an Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics might impact ethics are made much more clear by Westberg’s clarifying examples.
This is inherently a work of moral theology and so Westberg spends a good amount of time outlining how theology might impact one’s moral outlook. Aquinas had much to contribute here, and again the Thomistic system is incorporated into the discussion, allowing for a robust metaphysics to back up the ethical reasoning placed herein.
Renewing Moral Theology is a great read for those who want to explore the interconnectedness of theology and morality. It provides a firm foundation to explore further issues of Thomistic ethics. For those who are not inclined towards Thomism, it can serve as a springboard for discussion and interaction with the view. It comes recommended.
+Strong Thomistic look at ethics
+Good use of examples to illustrate principles
+Excellent analysis of “double-effect” principle
+Rightly emphasizes some key areas of moral decision-making
-At times it skips too quickly to conclusions
Disclaimer: I was provided with a review copy of the book from the publisher. I was not asked to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)
Daniel Westberg, Renewing Moral Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015).
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Sorry I’m a bit late today folks. I was on vacation and still catching up to some stuff after a beautiful cruise in Alaska! Anyway, this week I still got some diverse reads for you, dear friends! We have reads ranging from Luther on the Lord’s Supper to science fiction creatures, from Paley to Thomism, and even a comic! Check them out and let me know what you think!
The Lord’s Supper – Martin Luther’s Journey to the Bible– Martin Luther’s theology of the sacraments is central to his view of Christianity and the Christian life. Here’s an extended blog post looking at how he developed his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.
I’m a Theology Nerd (Comic)- Yep, pretty much this. I am a huge theology nerd, in case anyone didn’t notice. This comic captures some of the reasoning behind that pretty well: if you really think there is a transcendent, loving, creator of the universe, how could we not love to learn more and more about that being?
Crossing the Heath with William Paley (1743-1805)– Doug Geivett continues his fascinating series on historical Christian apologists with one of the most famous to have ever lived: William Paley. He especially emphasizes Paley’s design argument, with a nod towards his historical arguments as well. I have written on Paley myself, and interested readers should check out my posts in the linked text.
Neo-Scholastic Essays– Edward Feser has a new book out that collects many of his essays together for your reading pleasure. Why care about Edward Feser? He is, in my opinion, the clearest thinker on Thomistic philosophy writing today. And he writes a lot. Check out his blog and be sure to look into his books as well. I’ve written on some things from Feser before.
Treecats Climb Into Children’s Hearts– David Weber is my favorite science fiction author. He’s got all kinds of awesome military sci-fi out there that you should read! Here’s a post that should warm your hearts too about his going to classrooms to share the love of literature with kids! I had the chance to meet Weber not too long ago, and I’ve written on his portrayal of women and religion in science fiction as well.
Every Sunday, I will share a quote from something I’ve been reading. The hope is for you, dear reader, to share your thoughts on the quote and related issues and perhaps pick up some reading material along the way!
The Failure of Scientism
Edward Feser is a profoundly brilliant scholar. Every time I read something he writes–even if I disagree–I realize I must contend with his argument. In his latest book, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, he provides a robust look at the ways in which Scholastic philosophy and Thomism may be applied to the modern day. He touches on any number of important and interesting topics, including scientism–the notion that the physical sciences are the only way to know anything. But he doesn’t have much nice to say about scientism:
[T]he glib self-confidence of its advocates notwithstanding, there are in fact no good arguments whatsoever for scientism, and decisive arguments against it… First, scientism is self defeating… Second, the scientific method cannot even in principle provide us with a complete description of reality. Third, the ‘laws of nature’ in terms of which science explains phenomena cannot in principle provide us with a complete explanation of reality. Fourth, what is probably the main argument in favor of scientism–the argument from the predictive and technological successes of modern physics and the other sciences–has no force. (10)
Now of course this is quite a bit to swallow, and Feser expands on these points over the next several pages, arguing that each of these points demonstrates the failure of scientism.
I’m still going through the book, but it has been a fantastic read so far.
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Sunday Quote– If you want to read more Sunday Quotes and join the discussion, check them out! (Scroll down for more)
Edward Feser, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Books; Editiones Scholasticae, 2014).
The Winter Olympics are on and I am currently experiencing -7 wind chill… which feels warm compared to what we’ve had! Thus, we have an owl post edition of the Really Recommend Posts, which features another round of great reads from across the internet! This week, we peruse rival theism, reasons for apologetics, evidence for faith, and more!
A complex god with a god complex– Edward Feser here discusses some criticisms of classical theism from a rather unexpected avenue: a rival theistic system which does not hold that God is the simplest possible being, among other things. Rather than being an atheistic critique, this is a criticism from a variant on theism. Feser’s comments are insightful and interesting. He is a Thomistic philosopher who continually has extremely insightful thoughts. I’ve been reading through one of his books–The Last Superstition–and a post on a quote from it has spurred much discussion.
J. Warner Wallace: Why are you a Christian?– The importance of apologetics is brought poignantly to the forefront in J. Warner Wallace’s comments in this post. Wallace is the author of Cold-Case Christianity, a simply fantastic apologetics book, and his comments here offer a stirring call to instruction in the faith.
Okay, you’re right. There’s no evidence for faith– Tom Gilson has been at the forefront of responding to Peter Boghossian, the Atheist Tactician. Here, he continues his series of posts regarding Boghossian’s critique of faith in general. The comments are highly insightful.
The Legitimate Use of Thomas Aquinas in Apologetics– What might Thomas Aquinas have to instruct us in apologetics? Here a few major aspects of Aquinas’ continuing contributions to apologetics are discussed.
Gary Habermas- SALT 2013 (VIDEO)- Gary Habermas is a leading expert on Jesus’ Resurrection. Here is a speech he gave at last year’s SALT (Strategic Answers for Life’s Thoughts) conference.
Robert Spitzer’s New Proofs for the Existence of God (hereafter NPEG) presents in rigorous detail, five arguments for the existence of God, a section discussing the plausibility of multiverse/string universe scenarios, and some philosophical discussion on methodology.
Before continuing the review, I should note that the “New” in NPEG is nuanced. Spitzer notes this himself (my guess is that it was a marketing technique. “New” refers to the evidence from cosmology and further research in philosophy which lend new power for these arguments.
Chapter 1 presents a cosmological argument. Spitzer cogently argues that “(1) If there is a reasonable likelihood of a beginning of the universe… and (2) if it is apriori true that ‘from nothing, only nothing comes,’ then it is reasonably likely that the universe came from something which is not physical reality” (Spitzer, 45). This conclusion is supported by explorations of current cosmological theories about the origins of the universe.
Chapter 2 presents the teleological argument, which Spitzer bases on the universal constants. The argument leads to the conclusion that “the odds against an anthropic condition occurring are astronomically high, making any life form… exceedingly improbable.” It is a probabilistic argument, the likes of which I defend in my article Past, Probability, and Teleology (Hope’s Reason 2011-1).
Following chapter 2 is a chapter which discusses the possibilities of inflationary cosmology and the string multiverse written by Bruce Gordon. It is extremely technical and will provide readers with cogent arguments against the possibility of a multiverse scenario circumventing the previous arguments.
Chapter 3 presents Spitzer’s metaphysical argument for the existence of God, which is full of sound argumentation along with some interesting Thomistic Philosophy wherein he discusses God’s simplicity in the most coherent way I have read. I greatly encourage readers to look into this chapter, if only for the discussion of this oft-neglected doctrine.
Spitzer follows this with Chapter 4’s metaphysical argument derived from Bernard Lonergan’s Insight, which is a subtle version of the argument from reason. This chapter was particularly good because it focuses on a little-used type of arguments for the existence of God–that if our universe is intelligible, that can only be explained by God’s existence.
Chapter 5 is an argument from contingency similar to the Leibnizian cosmological argument.
Chapter 6 engages the question of method in philosophy along with whether atheism is actually rational. I was intially put off by the title of this chapter (“Methodological Considerations and the Impossibility of Disproving God”), but happened throughout the book, I was pleasantly surprised by the rigorous arguments and enlightening conclusions Spitzer laid out.
Finally, the last two chapters outline some more considerations about the universe and the relation of humans and God.
NPEG was a surprising read for me. I went in with neutral expectations, and those were blown away. Spitzer’s knowledge of the topics in the work runs deep, and his writing style is clear and cohesive. It is genuinely exciting to read. Readers will be challenged by the arguments for the existence of God, and engaged in the details and philosophical explanations of these arguments. I highly recommend this work to those interested in advanced books on arguments for God’s existence.
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Christopher Hughes’ work, On a Complex Theory of a Simple God: An Investigation in Aquinas’ Philosophical Theology (hereafter CTSG), is part of a series of books (on independent topics by different authors—meaning one can jump in on whichever book one wants) called the “Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion.” It is the first book in the series which I have read (though I have 5 more sitting on my shelf), but if it is any indicator of things to come, I highly recommend this series.
CTSG mostly focuses on Thomistic Philosophy, but it specifically highlights St. Thomas Aquinas’ arguments for Divine Simplicity and his discussions of the Trinity and the Incarnation. I must admit that initially I found it hard to maintain interest in this work. Thomistic Philosophy is by no means a specialty of mine, and I got the book mostly because I was vaguely interested in whether or not Divine Simplicity—that is, the idea that God is “omnino simplex”, altogether simple, and “in no way composite” (Hughes, 4). Hughes, however, manages to make a topic in which I displayed only a passing interest into a page-turner of a philosophical work.
Divine Simplicity was appealing for a few reasons. First, if God is composite in no way, then it seems as though many objections to the compatibility of properties of God—say, of omnipotence and omniscience—fail to be objections at all. For if God is absolutely simple, omnipotence just is omniscience (following the example) and vice versa, and if this is the case then to object that omniscience and omnipotence are incompatible would be to object that two things which are identical are incompatible. Aquinas holds to this very view. On Aquinas’ view, “His [God’s] existence is also His goodness, wisdom, justice, omnipotence, and so on” (22). Second, if God is perfectly simple, then it seems as though God as a hypothesis, if you will, increases in merit, granting Occam’s Razor. For, if God is absolutely simple, then to object to God’s existence as being too complex (as some do) is entirely specious, as God is not complex at all. Third, philosophical interest in Divine Simplicity had me longing to learn more about it.
Hughes’ analysis and critique of the arguments for Divine Simplicity are fantastic. His capabilities in discerning and detailing the complexities involved in Thomistic Philosophy are spectacular. It is his unbiased analysis, however, which most characterizes CTSG. Throughout pages 28-57, he destroys (in my opinion) Aquinas’ arguments for Divine Simplicity. Then, he argues that God cannot be identical to His insular attributes, which counters the argument in defense of Divine Simplicity that, roughly, ‘omnipotence and omniscience may appear to be different, but perfection of either quality shows that they are actually the same’ (60-68).
Yet despite his rather convincing arguments against Divine Simplicity as drawn out by most proponents, Hughes also outlines a possibility for a defense for that very idea. For if 1) God exists necessarily in the logical sense, and 2) if all things are contingent upon God’s existence (two premises Hughes disagrees with, but does not offer an argument to refute per se—instead he refers to Humean thinking as a reason not to accept 1)), then
“[b]y 2), any individual substance in world w distinct from B exists there only at the sufferance of B, and would not have existed if B had exercised its will in a way it might have. By 1), we know that there is an individual substance—the individual in our world which is (a) God—which exists in w, and does not exist at the sufferance of B, that is, could not have failed to exist through any possible exercise of B’s will. It follows that the individual who is a God in our world is identical to B. Since B and w were chosen arbitrarily, we may conclude that nothing actual or possible could have the specific nature Deity without also being the very same individual as God. In other words, God’s individual essence is no different from His specific essence” (99).
This allows the defender of Divine Simplicity a “way out,” if you will. For she can hold that 1) and 2) are both true, and then argue (though, as Hughes notes, in “a flavor more Leibnizian than Thomistic” ) that God exists and his specific and individual essence must be identical. This allows for a modification of Divine Simplicity which avoids the downfalls Hughes points out in the other formulations.
Another fantastic section of Hughes’ work is his defense of omniscience. He suggests (following David Lewis) that omniscience can be defined as “X is omniscient if and only if X knowingly (that is, in such a way as to satisfy the conditions for knowledge) self-ascribes all and only those properties that X exemplifies” (126). This suggested definition of omniscience has much to recommend it. First, it clearly avoids any problems with the supposed incompatibility of a timeless deity and knowledge, thus allowing those who favor Divine Timelessness (such as myself) to have an adequate, defensible view of omniscience. Second, it allows for the compatibility of a timeless, changeless, and omniscient deity (127).
The rest of CTSG is made up of Hughes analyzing Aquinas’ view of the Trinity and the Incarnation. This covers approximately half the work, but I feel the need to sum up Hughes wonderful analysis simply by saying that it seems he has shown there are serious problems with Aquinas’ formulation of the Trinity, granting Aquinas’ presuppositions about identity, simplicity, etc., but it seems that Hughes “way out” for the defender of Divine Simplicity outlined above could potentially be a “way out” for those desiring to defend the Trinity and the Incarnation on a modified account. Hughes himself offers possibilities for defending each of these doctrines which may not necessarily require abandoning Simplicity (cf. 251-253 for one example). As it stands, however, it seems that Aquinas himself has not provided an adequate defense of the propositions he wishes to claim as “compossible.” Rather, defenders of Thomistic philosophy must turn outside of that realm–towards analytic or Liebniz–to reconcile those doctrines which Aquinas wishes to defend.
Hughes does a simply fantastic job of outlining Aquinas’ arguments, analyzing them, critiquing them, supplementing them, and then providing a final analysis. Hughes remains fair and, I would say, unbiased throughout his work. He allows for the possibilities that central theses of Aquinas’ “philosophical theology” are indeed correct, granting formulations Hughes himself does not share. I, however, do share many of the premises of those who can defend Divine Simplicity, and therefore continue to find it a “bruised, not beaten” doctrine. Hughes’ insightful work should command a place of care on any philosopher of religion’s bookshelf, as he has not only written a wonderfully compelling investigation into Aquinas’ philosophical theology, he has also contributed to modern Thomistic and analytic philosophy, but most of all he demonstrated a willingness to concede possibilities on the “other side” of the debate and a rigorous approach to analytic philosophy of religion which one can only hope will be emulated.
Hughes, Christopher. On a Complex Theory of a Simple God: An Investigation in Aquinas’ Philosophical Theology. Cornell University Press. 1989.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.