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Burrell, David B. Aquinas: God and Action.

BURRELL, David B. Aquinas: God and Action. Scranton: University of Scranton Press, 2008. xv + 204pp. Paper, $15.00--No brief summary could do justice to the philosophical depth of this study. Although each chapter certainly serves to defend or enhance the central thesis of the work--that Aquinas' approach to God-talk is more therapeutic than it is theoretical--each of these chapters also stands alone as a work of high philosophical art, containing not only provocative pieces of philosophy but some helpful exegesis of Aquinas' texts. Other than adding a new preface and changing the end-notes of the original to footnotes in the new (not to mention the introduction of additional typos), this work is simply a paperback reissue of the 1979 original.

The book has two parts. Part one elucidates Aquinas' "grammatical approach" to speaking about God, whereas part two explains the importance of actus for Aquinas, particularly for his philosophical theology.

Chapter one functions as a preliminary textual apologia for Burrell's interpretation of Aquinas on God. He notes three places where Aquinas makes a linguistic distinction of some sort that helps us overcome a potential error in our thinking about God. Chapters two and three consist of a commentary on the central logical moves of Aquinas' Summa Theologiae (ST), questions 2-11. Burrell notes that critics and commentators alike have assumed that Aquinas is here constructing "a doctrine of God." For Burrell, Aquinas is not so much offering an account of the attributes of God as he is providing us with logical rules about what we can and can't say about God.

The fourth chapter addresses the topic of analogical predication. Burrell argues that Aquinas' treatment of analogous predication and God is compatible with Aquinas' view that we do not know what God is. Although we are warranted in using words such as "good," "just," and "living" of God--since God is the first cause of all things, and a cause cannot be ontologically outclassed by its effect--we don't know the manner in which God enjoys these perfections.

Where chapter five treats the question whether we can know by way of philosophy that we are worshiping the true God, Burrell entertains objections to Aquinas' philosophical theology in chapters six and seven. For instance, Charles Hartshorne objects that Aquinas makes theism out to be either incoherent or absurd, since Aquinas says that God is not really related to creatures and yet also says that God is the Creator. Through a careful analysis of Aquinas' texts, Burrell shows that when Aquinas denies that God is really related to creatures, he means specifically to deny that God is necessarily a Creator. But as Burrell notes, Aquinas' grammatical treatment of God "remains open to God's freely relating to the world. And if so, we are led to think of him as related to the world much more intimately than by virtue of a natural process."

In chapter eight, Burrell argues that Aquinas' philosophical theology is guided by a "master metaphor," that is, a notion fundamental to human language and experience. For Aquinas, that fundamental notion is actus. Chapter nine discusses what Burrell takes to be the paradigm uses of actus for Aquinas--understanding and willing. As Burrell goes on to note in chapter ten, Aquinas' way of understanding the relationship between natural causation and intentional activity is the reverse of the contemporary approach. In treating intentional activity as the paradigm use of actus rather than physical process or change, Aquinas can plausibly maintain that God--though immutable--is not something life-less or static, but rather pure activity.

According to Burrell, Aquinas' use of actus in speaking about God is compatible with the via negativa. Burrell points out in chapter eleven that Aquinas' treatment of creation as God's free activity has him emphasizing what creation is not, namely it is not a change; it does not presuppose time or matter. Furthermore, Aquinas' account of the Trinity in ST follows the Catholic tradition in asserting that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are subsistent relations. However, as Burrell notes, although the category of relation is familiar enough to us, we can't understand a relation that is also subsistent. Thus, we can attain through the Church's account of God "some intimation of that life which is proper to God as such," but this understanding of God nonetheless remains "beyond our ken."

Chapter twelve takes us deeper into Aquinas' account of the Trinity. Here Burrell treats Aquinas' use of the human acts of understanding and willing as (admittedly remote) analogies for the emanation of the Son from the Father and the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son, respectively. Burrell closes his study of Aquinas' use of actus in chapter thirteen by looking at cases where activity does not entail accomplishment, such as the contemplative life and the repose of the martyr. In Burrell's view, the fact that we need not link activity with accomplishment--particularly in the paradigm case of actus, intentional activity--shows the aptness of Aquinas' use of actus as a way of speaking directly, albeit analogously, about the transcendent God.

On a critical note, Burrell nowhere seeks to explain precisely what Aquinas means when he says that "concerning God, we are not able to know what God is, but [rather] what God is not" (ST Ia. q. 3, prologue). Given that Burrell spends a lot of time in this book working to retrieve the meanings of various texts in Aquinas' Summa Theologiae--for what a medieval philosopher means to say is not always obvious to us in the twenty-first century--it seems strange that Burrell would fail to provide the same kind of careful treatment of the text that functions as the hermeneutical key for his reading of Aquinas' philosophical theology. This is particularly odd when we note as Burrell himself does--that Aquinas apparently feels comfortable saying things such as "God is pure act," "God is the first cause," "God is the beginning and end of all things," and "God is good." This being said, anyone interested in deepening their understanding of Aquinas' thought, or engaging with the work of a first-rate philosopher of language, will reap great rewards from a careful reading (or re-reading, as the case may be) of Father Burrell's classic work.--Christopher M. Brown, The University of Tennessee at Martin.
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Author:Brown, Christopher M.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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