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Thomas Aquinas on God and Evil.

THOMAS AQUINAS ON GOD AND EVIL. By Brian Davies. New York: Oxford University, 2011. Pp. xvi + 172. $99; $29.95.

To the philosophically fashionable discussion of the problem of evil, Davies has added this most unfashionable volume. Unfashionable because his subject, Thomas Aquinas, does not endorse the broadly accepted premise that evil poses a problem for belief in God and in his goodness. Though many theists have in recent years undertaken to vindicate God as morally good in spite of the reality of evil, D. shows that Aquinas's entire approach to the question of God and evil is quite different from these moderns in both method and substance of argument. Aquinas engages "in no sustained theodicy or defense of belief in God written with an eye on evil" (6).

After three introductory chapters treating the modern conception of the problem of evil, Aquinas as a philosopher and theologian, and his basic philosophical underpinnings, in the seven remaining chapters D. launches into a more detailed examination of Aquinas's thought on goodness, evil, and God. He first sets forth Aquinas's basic distinction between good and evil (29-36). Whatever is desirable for a thing to be or become in accord with its nature is "good" for that thing. Most fundamentally, existence is what contributes to a thing's goodness. Evil, on the other hand, is the lack of goodness where it ought to be. Evil is not a created essence or accident, but the absence of any goodness that is required for the perfection of a particular nature, that is, a certain lack of existence. Aquinas classifies evil as evil suffered (i.e., malum poenae, as when fire consumes wood thereby depriving wood of goodness in order to perfect its own goodness as fire) and evil done (i.e., malum culpae, moral evil committed by volitional agents).

So, is God responsible for evil? D. shows that Aquinas's answer to this question is partly affirmative and partly negative. God does not cause evil directly or as an end in itself, but God does cause the existence of the creaturely agents of evil and, in the case of moral agents, of their evil volitional acts (71). But the existence of volitional agents and of their acts of willing is actually "good" inasmuch as such existence is desirable according to their nature. Still, if God causes moral agents and their evil volitional acts to exist, does God not cause the evil of those acts? Thomas thinks not. "Aquinas's view," D. explains, "is that while God causes those actions we freely choose, he does not choose those actions for us" (72).

Given that God grants existence to moral agents and to their evil volitional acts, how is it that God is not morally culpable? How can God still be regarded as good? For most modern theists this is the heart of the "problem" of evil, and it is here that D. unveils his most striking discovery. Aquinas does not believe that God is a moral agent. Inasmuch as moral goodness is measured by habitual conformity to some standard of goodness, it simply cannot apply to God. First, God cannot be virtuous inasmuch as God lacks the key ingredient of virtue, i.e., dispositions (or habits) by which one moves toward the perfection of one's nature (60). As pure act, God is immobile. Second, God cannot be subject to some standard to which he must conform. True, God is identical with his own goodness and thus cannot but act in agreement with it; but this acting is not rightly conceived as conformity inasmuch as conformity implies some subjection of one thing to another (e.g., action to nature). But God is simple and thus possesses no parts that can be subjected to other parts. Moreover, God is not well behaved or poorly behaved because, as pure act, God simply is not behaved at all! This undoubtedly is one of D.'s most profound contributions to the modern discussion of God and evil.

One deficiency in D.'s treatment is the absence of any sustained discussion of God's plan or purpose with respect to evil as historical event. One would have expected D. to discuss this in his section on divine providence (81-84), but he does not. In fact, it is surprising that he makes no reference to Aquinas's exposition of Job, since the Angelic Doctor there explicitly states that his purpose is to discuss human affairs as ruled by divine providence, especially affairs dominated by evil.

D.'s volume does not intend to dissolve the reality of evil or the challenges it poses. Rather, it aims to set forth, through Aquinas, an alternative to the popular theodicist approach that treats evil as a moral problem for God. Why God created a world with evil when G. could just as well have created one without it is a great mystery, but it is not a problem for God. This classical position is too often neglected by modern Christians, and we can be grateful to D. for helping rehabilitate a focus on God's transcendence in the discussion about evil.


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Author:Dolezal, James E.
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 24, 2012
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