Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Law or Power

Good, Evil, and Science, Fr. James Brent, OP (audio)

This is lesson 16 from a series entitled Aquinas 101, offered by The Thomistic Institute.  Each lesson comes out weekly, with a short video (3-5 minutes) and audio lecture (30 – 50 minutes) and a reading or two. 

Brent proceeds in three parts: first, Aristotle’s philosophy of nature – the world of form and finality; second, the mechanistic materialism that replaced Aristotle’s philosophy – the world of power and control; third, he will propose a way forward to integrate these two.  He offers some interesting thoughts on our contemporary situation in society – it is no coincidence that the meaning crisis and interest in some philosophy other than “material” are occurring simultaneously. 

First, form and finality: in this world, there is a basis in nature for moral claims, and humans have the ability to know this basis – both Christian believers and unbelievers.  He begins with Aristotle as an example, but this view isn’t bound or limited to Aristotle.

What follows are examples of forms and functions, with the end or telos of each respective kind.  We live in just such a world, and it was a pagan philosopher who laid this out.  Human beings are capable of at least some eternal truth without learning it from the Scripture – or to look at it another way, all men are in search of God.

He offers some of the sayings from the sages of Delphi: practice justice, respect your parents, follow god.  Well, Christians can agree with this.  Paul offers in Romans 2:

14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: 15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;

So, what is “good”?  Each thing is good to the extent it realizes the proper end, or telos, for its kind.  If a bald eagle didn’t soar, or an apple tree didn’t produce fruit, we would say something was wrong with it – it is a factual, objective assessment, not a subjective one. 

So, what of human beings?  We are to live according to reason.  But it is reason tempered by Scripture – this is not an “anything goes” reason, one unbound by morality, but reason grounded in God’s wisdom.  Hence, Natural Law as developed in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition fits neatly inside this window – or, perhaps, properly bounds this window.

Brent turns to the second part: the world of power and control – what comes by rejecting the world of form and finality.  In this world, there is no basis in nature for shared moral evaluation and agreement.  The difficulties here begin with William of Ockham and his concept of nominalism.  Nominalism denied the concept of universalism – denying that there were forms or essences universal to a type.

Form and finality compromised the sovereignty of God, argued Ockham.  Was God bound to abide by the form and finality of His creation?  Ockham denies this to be the case; God was not bound by this.  Hence, there are no universals, only particulars.  Agents do not act according to their nature, as there are no natures.  Agents act according to power or control, not nature.

I am aware that this opens a theological can of worms.  I am not sure how to comment beyond recognizing that Ockham introduces an arbitrariness that would make it difficult for a mustard seed of faith to grow.

If the values aren’t written in the form and finality, there is no basis of moral evaluation and judgement.  If the values aren’t written into the fabric of forms and final causes, where will one find the truth of such judgements?  One could conclude that such values are not true at all; yet this would make for an unlivable world.

We are then left with an arbitrary God, or with our appetites (hedonism, utilitarianism), or in our autonomous reason and arbitrary legislation.  A current fad in this regard is something akin to intuitionism – our intuition figures it out.  Yet we live in a world of interminable discourse and futile disagreement – so where is this “intuition”?  Why has this intuition not figured anything out, instead, perhaps, opening the door wider for ever-diverse disagreement?

This is the world of power and control – not at all in conformance with the Bible, and not at all conducive to a world of liberty.  The human person is unsafe – in every aspect of the term.  This opens the door to what Brent calls the hermeneutics of suspicion.  He offers Marx, Nietzsche and Freud as examples of those who have brought this forward.  It seems to me that much of the modern world to even include post-modernists – in reaction to the Enlightenment – is reacting in the same way.

Theirs are attempts to find liberation and safety from the fundamental and threatening forces of power and control – it is the same thing that libertarians battle against.  Yet, in the case of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, the post-modernists (and many libertarians), it is an attempt via self-salvation.  But all this leaves us with is competing battles for power and control – or control of power.

So, what is the way forward?  This is the third part of the lecture.  One can affirm on philosophical grounds both the science of form and finality and the findings of contemporary science.  Brent offers a group of contemporary philosophers known as the River Forest Thomists: Aristotle offered highly generalized truths; modern science offers necessary particulars.  These need not conflict.


The metaphysics of form and finality are better suited for the purposes of ethics (and liberty) than is power and control.  Something or someone will govern.  Does liberty have a better chance in a world governed by laws deduced from the nature of humans or governed by humans unbound by such laws?

I believe the question answers itself.  And there is no third way.


  1. "Form and finality compromised the sovereignty of God, argued Ockham. Was God bound to abide by the form and finality of His creation? Ockham denies this to be the case; God was not bound by this. Hence, there are no universals, only particulars. Agents do not act according to their nature, as there are no natures. Agents act according to power or control, not nature."

    I think people get too carried away by the notion of omnipotence and omniscience. It wouldn't bother my faith to entertain the notion that God did and does not know everything that will happen in the future of existence. Maybe He just has a good idea; maybe He has to have faith in His creation. Certainly there was a reason He created us. If He already knew what was going to happen exactly in every detail, it seems like the whole exercise would be a bit pointless.

    Either way, it stands to reason that even an omnipotent God could be bound by His own prior Omnipotent actions.

    This is a great discussion. I'm always interested in the roots of disorder in the West. I think you may have found one here, that I was previously oblivious to.

    This was one hell of a post all around.

    "Does liberty have a better chance in a world governed by laws deduced from the nature of humans or governed by humans unbound by such laws?"

    Great line!

    1. Imagine a God so omniscient that He is able to derive laws of nature so perfect that they need not ever be changed.

      Maybe the issue is not if God is bound by His own laws or not; maybe He designed nature in such a perfect way that the question is irrelevant.

    2. "...maybe He has to have faith in His creation."

      Intriguing thought and I have to say I've never seen it before. What does it mean?

      Faith implies a belief in something beyond one's control. Does this mean that God believes in something outside of His control? Does God have faith because He has tried this system before and seen it work? Or maybe He has tried it before and corrected all the mistakes? Or does God have faith (belief) in Himself so strongly that any other option simply cannot be entertained?

      Regardless, the result is that God is so supremely confident in His creation that He is willing to give Man the freedom and ability to really muck it up. Jesus came so that men can believe, maybe God believes that men will believe. But then, that opens up the idea that God has faith in men who are outside His control and must believe that they will do the right thing.

      Oh, my! Maybe I'll just go to work.

    3. Well, He gave us free will, so He must in some sense have faith that we'll make the right choices. Surely He has the power to force us all to do the right thing, but then what fun would that be?

      "According to most philosophers, God in making the world enslaved it. According to Christianity, in making it, He set it free. God had written, not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess of it." - G.k. Chesterton

      (my apologies for posting this quote so often, but I think it is an especially good one, and it fits the convo so well!)

  2. Thoughts of a God who is not omniscient or omnipotent are comforting at all. Also that doesn't agree with a God who created all from nothing.

    I agree with "so omniscient that He is able to derive laws of nature so perfect that they need not ever be changed."

  3. Is it important whether God is omnipotent or not?

    Sin can be defined as anything which is against the nature of God. God cannot do anything which is against His nature. God cannot act in opposition to His nature, which means that God cannot sin.

    Satan cannot act in a way which is in conformance to God's nature. Satan is God's polar opposite. Satan cannot do anything good. Satan is a liar, a thief, and a destroyer. Satan cannot do anything except sin.

    These are the two extremes. Man is caught in the middle. Man can do either good or evil. Man's choices are one or the other. Man decides whether God or Satan triumphs on Earth, in time, and in history. This fact gives enormous power to Man and, at the risk of alienating everyone and losing my salvation, I will say that this may make Man more powerful about some things than either God or Satan.

    This is the issue to keep in mind. Everything else is narrative and intended to distract us from the ultimate goal--that good shall triumph over evil.

    I might say that those who promote the idea that God is all-powerful tend to demean the power that Man has to effect positive change. If God is omnipotent, then everything will eventually work out according to His plan, whether Man cooperates or not. This is like pre-millenial thought which believes that the Apocalypse is coming, the Rapture is at hand, Israel is going to be miraculously saved even though a third of the world's population is wiped out. Somehow, God will save the day and the world, therefore I have to do nothing except go to church on Sunday, work five days a week, pay my mortgage, and watch football the rest of the time. In the meantime, abortion on demand rules the day and corrupt politicians run amuck.

    No, no, no! if Man does what is good, Man prospers. If Man chooses to do evil, Man loses. Is this within God's omniscient, omnipotent plan? Who can say? After all, there are some things about God which are unknowable and inscrutable. One thing that we do know for certain is that we have to continue to do good, to the best of our ability, the only way we know how, which is through the power of Jesus the Christ with the assistance and power of the Holy Spirit.

    Everything else is speculation and distracts us from the task at hand--changing our lives and our world into His Image.

    1. I would tend to agree, except I don't see God and Satan as polar opposites, as if they are equally matched. Satan is simply a creation of God serving the role God assigned to him (whether Satan knows it or not).

      Surely God knew Satan would fall in the same way he knew Judas would betray Him and Peter would deny Him three times before serving as the foundation stone of the Church.

      "Satan is a liar, a thief, and a destroyer. Satan cannot do anything except sin."

      I'm not so sure about this. I think Satan can do good in order to accomplish his ends. He can use the truth (if not the whole truth) for his own purposes. Ultimately Satan wants to cut off our relationship with God, so that he can become our supreme ruler or god. If he must use good to win this fight I think he is capable.

      Satan is insanely intelligent and there are all sorts of ingenious ways to mobilize the good in people to sever their relationship with God. Material prosperity for instance is good, but it is often accompanied by more temptations. It just might also be the most dangerous condition for the health of the Church.

    2. Good points. I'll have to think about these. Can you point to Scripture which says that Satan was created? Is Satan a created being or has he always existed, as the Spirit of God has? I've actually considered the possibility that God/Satan are alter egos of the same schizophrenic Being. I don't believe that, but it does have some attraction.

      I favor the idea that God, instead of knowing everything that WILL happen, simply knows everything that COULD happen, given any set of circumstances. God knows exhaustively all possibilities. If an individual makes a certain choice, it opens up a whole new set of options and possibilities in his future. If you marry this girl instead of that one, for instance, your future will be different.

      One thing that makes this interesting is that the closer we get to dying, the less options are available to us. If we live long enough and deteriorate far enough, we may be limited to very few choices, or none at all except waiting to die.

      For young people, however, the entire world is wide open. The various twists and turns in their road are incomprehensible to us, but they may not be to God.

    3. Adolf Hitler could do good in order to accomplish his purposes. He also did evil for the same reason. This is simply a manifestation of the struggle that rages through us and our world.

      I'm not so sure that Satan can do good. Satan is evil, there is no truth or good in him. In order to do good, he would have to act like God, Who is his arch-enemy. This would reinforce God's position, not weaken it.

      God creates, Satan destroys. Man veers and lurches from one side to the other.

  4. I would say that Satan does evil no matter what because his purpose is to deceive humans into following him rather than God. That taints all of his actions with evil.

    1. RMB,

      I can agree that all Satan's actions are tainted with evil, because of his ultimate ends, but this doesn't mean that he can't do things or inspire men to do things which many will perceive as good, but which ultimately work towards evil ends. This is what I meant.

    2. Well, yes, Satan can inspire men to do things which many perceive as good (progressive socialism springs immediately to mind), but that doesn't mean that Satan is himself good in any way, shape, or form. Rather, the fact that Satan can inspire men to do things which they perceive as good, but in fact are evil, only shows that deluded men simply cannot see the truth about what they are doing and are easily led into evil behavior and thought.

    3. For Satan, the ends justify the means. The ends are evil; the means can be anything: good or evil - he has no integrity, after all. As long as his actions move toward an evil end, the form of the action is unimportant.

      At least that's how it seems to me.

  5. Ezekiel 28 is believed to be about Satan. It is within a lament given against the King of Tyre, but the description within can't be talking about a human king.

    It is widely believed to be about Satan's origin. In verse 13 it states him being created.

    1. Very interesting thank you! I was unaware of this passage.

    2. Just because many believe that this passage refers to Satan doesn't necessarily make it so.

      There has always been a tendency among royal subjects, especially those desiring to curry favor with despots, to begin addressing them in very laudable terms. "You are the Great Elephant, the Sun which gives light to all the Earth, the Destroyer of all your enemies, the Provider of all good things..."

      Obviously, none of these can describe any human being, but they were used nonetheless. History is replete with such accounts.

      It's quite likely that Ezekiel employed the same format in addressing the King of Tyre, first by building him up and stroking his vanity before forecasting his miserable end. "You are so great and mighty and beautiful, O King, not to mention rich beyond all comprehension, but you're going to end up like a dead dog in the gutter."

      The fact of the matter is, as shown in verse 12, that Ezekiel is prophesying against a man, the king of Tyre, who is "the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. " Again, obviously no human being could match this description. This is not a literal description, but a complimentary metaphor.

      I see nothing in this chapter which can be used to unquestionably point to Satan as the target.

      God has always existed. God is good. If God has always existed and God is good, then good has always existed. Likewise, because good cannot be defined unless there is something to measure it against, then evil has always existed and it manifests itself in the form of Satan. If this is true, then Satan has always existed and was not created.

    3. Your last sentence goes against every concept of God and creation that I have come to understand. Do you have a source?

    4. I think the Bible is clear that everything except God was created by God. For example...

      John 1
      "1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being."

      Colossians 1
      "16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together."

      The end of Revelation speaks of God's sovereignty over Satan. Also the book of Job. God has control over him which stems out of him being created. A skeptic's question would be why does God give him such opportunity? I don't know, but it doesn't change what is clear.

      Revelation 20
      "7 When the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison, 8 and will come out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together for the war; the number of them is like the sand of the seashore. 9 And they came up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, and fire came down from heaven and devoured them. 10 And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

    5. RMB, you make a good case. After all, it is hard to go against what is clearly written in the Scriptures. Nevertheless, I want to make one more point and unless someone asks a direct question or makes a compelling argument, this will be my last statement on the subject.

      God has always existed. Since God is good, good has always existed. I think we can all agree on that.
      The question, though, is when did evil come into the picture.

      There are really only three options:
      1. God created evil.
      2. Evil has always existed along with, but separate from the good.
      3. Evil was created by an entity totally separate from God.

      If God did not create evil AND evil has not always existed, then someone other than God created it at some point in time. This ‘creator’ must be nearly as powerful as God Himself, since evil produces a counterweight virtually equal to good. The tension between evil (destruction, death) and good (creation, life) is very nearly balanced in nature.

      The most likely agent in this scenario is Satan.

      This leads to the possibility (conclusion?) that God created everything, including Satan, but then gave him 100% liberty and freedom to make his own way, even if that was directly opposed to what God desired.

      Did God ‘know’ what would happen when Satan was given total autonomy? Well, the Bible tells us that “...He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in His presence. In love, He predestined us for adoption as His sons through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of His will,…” (Ephesians 1:4, 5) As I understand it, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was planned from the very beginning, before anything (at least in the physical, perhaps even Satan himself) was created.

      On this issue, I can't speak with certainty. What I do know is that evil exists and that we have the power, through the Holy Spirit, to overcome it. I believe that, over time and in history, more and more men will choose the good until eventually the evil is generally discredited everywhere. This is my hope. I don’t expect to see it realized within my lifetime.

    6. The ancient mythologies often associated a supreme evil being with chaos, water and the primordial void (Tiamat in Babylonian myth), whereas the hero god represented order, land and creation. So goodness is order, life sustaining land, and all creation (Logos) whereas evil is the absence of all these things, or so goes the myth.

      Similarly, I don't see evil and good as countervailing forces, but in the same way that darkness is only the absence of light, I see evil as only the absence of what is good; it is an appeal to the void, to the absence of life, to chaos.

      And Satan is just a powerful and beautiful angel created by God given free will (though without the hope of redemption from sin) who chose to lead a rebellion against God and fell from Heaven. Satan was the original radical and revolutionary fighting against creation, order, and all that is life sustaining. This is why I cringe anytime I hear libertarians embracing these terms.

      It is the revolutionary state that is radical, not us.

    7. There are theologians that have given answers to your question. I think RC Sproul was someone that had some good things to say on it.

      Basically the idea is that evil isn't a force or a thing. It is merely a removal of God's will or disobedience to Him. Kind of like light and dark. Dark is just the absence of light. It isn't a thing in and of itself.

      So when Satan first rebelled against God, he didn't create anything really. He just turned away from God.

      Thinking about John 1:1 again. In the beginning was the Word and the Word with God and the Word was God. Only God has existed eternally. Good existed only in that God is good.

      I know you don't believe that Ezekiel 28 is describing Satan and that is fine, but I think it does on a surface level describe the first evil act. It happened in his soul because of pride. I think there are also other passages in Isaiah and maybe one of the minor prophets that give similar hazy descriptions.

      But we do see Jesus call Satan the father of lies in John 8:44 and sin in 1 John 3. In Job you see God's authority over Satan. In Genesis 3 you see that his sin of questioning God and lying happened before the fall of Man.

      So my view is that sin originated in Satan similarly to Adam's sin. God is not responsible for sin. He did not create it. He created fallible beings with the capability of sinning, which they did.

    8. Thank you. I appreciate your input.

    9. I will concede that Satan is a created being who chose the evil over the good, turning away from and rebelling against God and everything that God represents. That, however, still doesn't explain where, when, or how the evil originated.

      If Satan was given free will and chose evil over good, then evil must have already been present. If God did not create it, then it must have existed separate from God. If it has not always been eternal, then it was created by someone. Who? If it was not created, then it has always been eternal.

      Good has always existed alongside evil. Good has always been in opposition to evil. Good and evil are eternal, spiritual forces locked in a constant, never-ending struggle. One creates, the other destroys. One gives life, the other kills. One offers liberty, the other enslaves. One loves, the other is cold and uncaring.

      There has always been an evil spirit opposed to the good spirit that we know as God. Sin may have originated with Satan at his rebellion, but evil has always been. Bionic Mosquito alluded to this in the post titled ‘The Problem of no Pain’ with his statement that, “Everything about pain points to the opposite of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit:” and his quote from C.S. Lewis, “Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit.”

      Evil either had an origination and a creator or it has always existed eternally. My bet is on eternity.

  6. No, I don't. It's an if/then statement. It isn't meant to be dogmatic. Likewise, I would ask you or anyone else for the proof that Satan was created. The Bible is ambiguous about this.

    This is something I'm trying to understand and am willing to listen to opposing viewpoints, but I need to see some hard proof.

  7. This may equate to the conversation about whether God is omnipotent or not. In the end, it shouldn't matter greatly to us, since we are responsible for knowing what is right, what is wrong, and making our own decisions in that light. It is not my intention to tangle this blog in dead-end discussions, so I am willing to let it go. Or carry it forward, if the demand is there.