John Frame Strikes Again

In his recent article, Dr. John Frame has once more put his fingers to the keyboard in another effort to critique Classical Christian Theism and has made sure, this time, to take on Thomas Aquinas directly. The problem? He demonstrates a great deal of misunderstanding, and I do not say that lightly. After a painful survey of the history of philosophy from Parmenides to Plato to Aristotle, leaping forward to Aquinas, Frame fails to mention virtually every important detail relevant to the discussion. In fact, Frame seems to misunderstand the very core of Aquinas’ thought, and it’s become clear that he really hasn’t tried to understand it. He writes, “Central to Aquinas’ thought was the ‘cosmological argument,’ similar to the argument by which Aristotle proved the existence of his Prime Mover.” This is just one example of Frame’s hastiness. Aquinas’ thought did not centralize itself around one of his “Five Ways.” Rather, the Five Ways were presented in order to explain how God could be proven through nature, following his discussion on why God should be proven. The argumentation Thomas presents is more or less a consequent of his thought rather than the center of it.

There are four basic areas where Frame goes wrong in his article. First, in a fast and loose sort of way, Frame identifies the thought of Aquinas with that of Aristotle’s. But this identification is in need of further qualification. Second, he utilizes Thomas’ first of the Five Ways in order to introduce a convenient inconsistency between Thomas’s faith and his natural theology. Third, because Aquinas ends at a God who is “pure being” (a la Aristotle), this God is therefore impersonal, or so it is thought. This is a rather near-sighted understanding if not a completely ill-informed criticism. Fourth, Frame––ironically––claims Aquinas fails to make a distinction between Creator and creature. But, if there ever was anyone to succeed at construing a proper Creator/creature distinction, it’s Thomas Aquinas. And if there was ever anyone who wanted to intellectually comprehend God at the expense of orthodoxy, it’s Frame and his ilk. This will hopefully become apparent in this article.

I will now attempt to answer the four above-mentioned points found in Frame’s latest article.

How Close Was Aquinas to Aristotle?

If anyone knows the name of Thomas Aquinas at all, they’ve probably heard it associated with Aristotelian philosophy. First, it’s important to eliminate the “boogie man” factor. Before we crawl up on our high-horses and demonize Aristotle as a “pagan philosopher” with nothing to offer, let’s set some things straight. You, reader, are utilizing Aristotle’s logic as you read this article. You are assuming a basic necessary relationship between cause and effect as you scroll down the page with your mouse; you’re able to distinguish between different types of words, individuating them according to their meanings and so on; you’re not confused as to whether or not this sentence exists because, in accordance with the law of non-contradiction, you’ve assumed (a priori) that this sentence cannot both exist and not exist at the same time and in the same relationship.

You’re using Aristotle’s categories without even knowing it.

Now, to be sure, Aristotle didn’t invent these things––and that’s part of the beauty of it. The Philosopher only discovered universal laws that were already imbedded within the fabric of creation by the Prime Mover, who we know to be God. He subsequently came up with helpful categories so that we could talk about these natural, abstract laws. There’s nothing inherently pagan about that. It only further proves Romans 1:18-20, that even unbelievers know God’s world and they, therefore, know God––albeit more obscurely than a Christian.

Aquinas recognized the usefulness of Aristotle’s categories, but he did not adopt Aristotle’s philosophy without exception. There are many places where Thomas disagrees with “The Philosopher.” Frame rightly mentions one disagreement between these two men, that is, while Aristotle believed in an eternal universe, Aquinas did not. This disagreement comes out in places such as this:

The first mover was always in the same state: but the first movable thing was not always so, because it began to be whereas hitherto it was not. This, however, was not through change, but by creation, which is not change, as said above (Q. 45, A. 2, ad 2). Hence it is evident that this reason, which Aristotle gives (Phys. viii), is valid against those who admitted the existence of eternal movable things, but not eternal movement, as appears from the opinions of Anaxagoras and Empedocles. But we hold that from the moment that movable things began to exist movement also existed.[1]

The problem is that Frame, seeing a necessary connection between something that is “pure Being” and impersonality, cannot see how Aquinas can coherently believe in the God of Scripture while maintaining belief in a fundamentally impersonal god. Frame does not understand, and so Frame rejects. This is a sign of rationalism.

Aquinas answers objections along these lines in multiple effective ways, as we shall see. And Frame would see that as well if he were to read Aquinas further.

Does the Argument from Motion (1st Way) End At a God Different from That Which We See in Scripture?

If it does, then we’re in trouble.

Aquinas didn’t speculate what kind of God followed from his theistic proofs. His conclusions are based on deduction, and follow necessarily from the premises. As Frame would agree, God has revealed Himself through nature as well as in Scripture––so the two ought never be seen in opposition to one another. If we’re simply utilizing the laws of logic embedded in the framework of creation by creation’s Creator, yet arrive at a false god, then there appears to be a disjuncture between creation and Scripture. But this cannot be.

As mentioned, Aquinas utilizes basic logic to come to necessary conclusions. He writes, “Everything that is moved is moved by another.” That is the beginning premise of his argument from motion. Simple enough, right? From this, he rightly concludes there must be an unmoved mover, since to posit an infinite regress of contingency is absurd. This unmoved mover must be God since Something that does not undergo change must be eternal, being without the confines of time (since time is merely a measurement of change). I think both Frame and Classical Theists would agree that the God of the Bible is both eternal and is, indeed, the first unmoved mover. To deny either of those two things would be to affirm a mutable or a temporal god, which would not be god at all. Frame writes:

[Thomas’] main point is that we must construe the nature of God so that God will never be dependent on anything other than himself. He is “pure being,” “pure actuality,” devoid of any change.

In Aristotle, this kind of argumentation led to a conception of God as unable to know or love the world.

Is Frame implying here that we need a god who is dependent on something other than himself in order for that god to know and love the world? Further, is he implying this god needs to be mutable in order to know and love the world? This is dangerous language, even if Frame isn’t meaning to imply such things. He goes on:

Aquinas avoids those conclusions by saying that God knows the world by knowing his own thoughts and actions, and that he loves the world by loving his own plans, actions, and intentions for the world. But those answers to Aristotle would seem to compromise Aquinas’ doctrine of the absolute simplicity of God. For it appears in this analysis that in God there is an interaction between complex elements: his knowledge, his plans, his thoughts, his actions, his intentions.

Frame is failing to discuss Aquinas’ use of analogical language, and he’s also failing to recognize that Thomas has addressed these concerns over and over in both the Summa Theologiae and the Summa Contra Gentiles. In chapter 63 of the Summa Contra Gentiles, for example, Thomas lists objections by those who would “take away the knowledge of singulars from God.”[2] And in chapters 64-71, Thomas demonstrates how God has knowledge of particulars, of infinite things, of evil things, of the motions of creaturely will, etc. Yet, he circles back ’round and shows how this knowledge of individuated things is an undivided knowledge identical with the divine essence, and knows individual things since individual things are merely imitations of the divine essence insofar as they are perfect, that is, insofar as they exist. This is a subject for another post, but the point here is that Frame failed to interact with any of this even though he claims to deal primarily with these very issues.

Is God Necessarily Impersonal If He Is Actus Purus, Or Pure Actuality?

As I’ve already alluded above, the answer to this question is, no. For God to be God, He must be actus purus. If He is not actus purus, then He is composed of parts; if He is composed of parts then He is dependent upon that which is more basic than Himself to be who He is. But in Scripture, we see a God who is not dependent upon anything to be who He is. There is no reason to connect the notion of actus purus to impersonality. In fact, we could infer the very opposite through creation alone.

First, creation exists. Second, in virtue of the existence of creation, we conclude that creation (made up of parts) must ultimately come from that which has no composition. That which is an admixture of actuality and potentiality is composed. And that which is composed is held together by virtue of Something, and here too, there cannot be an infinite regress of composition; so, composition must terminate in that which is not composed. This too is another argument for another time, but the point––again––is that Frame interacts with none of this in his rather lengthy article.

Does Aquinas Fail To Make The Distinction Between Creator And Creature?

As I mentioned earlier, it is indeed odd that Frame makes this claim. He says, “Aquinas, like Plato and Aristotle, fails to make a clear distinction between creator and creature. His God, like Aristotle’s is pure being, and created beings are in some way impure.” But one of Aquinas’ major points in his doctrine of God is to show that God exists in a fundamentally different way from how creatures exist. Moreover, he shows how God can be the only One who exists in this particular way. He is necessary and creatures are contingent. There can only be one necessary Being, according to Aquinas. Therefore, Aquinas is concerned to show that the distinction between God and creature is not one of quantity, it is not one of quality, but one of quiddity. Creatures belong to a genus, God does not belong to a genus. He does not depend on anything external to Himself to be who He is.

In chapter 14 of the Summa Contra Gentiles, Vol. 1, Thomas rightly asserts that if we are to know God, we must know Him by way of remotion (apophatically). In other words, we consider what God is not in order to know something of what He is. He writes:

However, in the consideration of the divine substance we cannot take a what as a genus; nor can we derive the distinction of God from things by differences affirmed of God. For this reason, we must derive the distinction of God from other things by means of negative differences… For example, if we say that God is not an accident, we thereby distinguish Him from all accidents.[3]

God, for Aquinas, is not merely on the high end of a scale of being. God is altogether different than that which we are familiar with in creation. In fact, God just is Being. For this reason, men like R. C. Sproul would state that “being,” as applied to human beings, is the biggest misnomer in history. Creatures are not beings in the sense that they just are. Creatures are not self-subsistent as God is. They are contingent. We are sustained and derivative, God is neither of these things.

Conclusion

One other thing Frame does which I would like to mention before we close is conflate the difference Thomas sees between articles of reason and articles of faith. He writes:

The perfect beings of Parmenides, Plato and Aristotle were impersonal, unlike the God of Scripture. It is not clear how Aquinas establishes the personal character of the God of Scripture, since he begins his argument with the notion of a first cause, a pure being. Where does the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob enter this argument?

The problem here is that Aquinas did not consider the existence of God, or the conclusions to any of his arguments, as articles of faith. Everything Thomas deduced from nature about God is Thomas’ natural theology and can be known by virtue of man’s reason apart from faith (as is demonstrated in his work). Articles of faith, however, discern a more specific doctrine God than the one Thomas or anyone else may deduce from creation. To be sure, nature does not give us a different God than faith, as some might want to suggest. Rather, both have the same God as their object, but the articles of faith specify further the identity of the God all men know through what has been made. For example, we cannot conclude through nature that God is triune; we cannot deduce through nature that God has decreed to save a people for Himself in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, etc. Scripture presents to us the doctrines of the faith, and those are apprehended as true and trusted only by regeneration of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:1-7; Tit. 3:5).

In this article, I hope to have shown some major points of misunderstanding in Frame’s article. He not only demonstrably misconstrues Aquinas, but he’s apparently so desperate to get away from Aquinas that he seems to question orthodox principles, such as aseity and immutability. He implies that this kind of God cannot know and love the world. But, as we have seen, Frame must be wrong on this point for both logical and doctrinal reasons. God is the great “I AM.” He is dependent upon nothing to be who He is. He does not need parts in order to exists; and He does not need to change in order to bring His creatures into a covenant relationship with Him. Coming to the conclusions Frame has arrived at is the result of rationalization.

Frame does not understand the argumentation and how these elements of the classical doctrine of God interrelate, and so he must reject them. In fact, I propose that Frame does not want to understand Thomas. That is a dangerous mindset to have. Consequently, in the second half of that same article, he goes on to affirm articles of the faith with a personalist twist. He’s formulating his doctrine, or his articles of faith, based on what he does not (and does not want to) understand. We ought to strive not to become rationalists in our efforts to systematize our theology. If we cannot understand something, we work to understand it. We allow logic, a God-given tool, to take us to mystery. But we do not reject orthodoxy simply because we cannot understand it.

We seek to serve an incomprehensible God.

Soli Deo Gloria.


[1] Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica (Complete & Unabridged) (p. 227). Coyote Canyon Press. Kindle Edition.
[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Vol. 1, 209.
[3] Ibid., 97.

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