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God and Creation in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth

Tyler Wittman, God and Creation in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 328 pp. $105.00 (hardback).

Reviewed by Jeffrey Skaff (September 04, 2019)



It’s hard not to worry when one sees a new book promising to treat two major figures on a major theological topic. Even if the author has mastered two sets of primary and secondary literature well enough to get the exposition of both figures right, the reader often leaves wondering what the point of the exercise was. What do the two accounts of this topic have to do with each another? Why treat them side by side? When this question can be answered, sometimes it’s simply that they have been brought together so that one can be made to beat up on the other. More positively, the reason can be ecumenical. In this book, Tyler Wittman attempts a third approach. He justifies bringing together two figures for a constructive reason.

The figures are Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth. The topic is the God-world relation. Wittman believes both Thomas and Barth can contribute something today to “the confession of God as God” (especially 4-14, 73, 142, 176-7, 253-4, 293-5). Given its frequency, I wish he had spent more time unpacking the phrase. As best as I can tell, it functions as shorthand for two affirmations. First, God must be able to be articulated apart from God’s activity in the world. Second, God’s activity in the world must correspond to who God is. In Wittman’s judgment, both Thomas and Barth can uphold both affirmations and so “confess God as God.” This confession—especially Thomas’s understanding of it—provide an alternative to contemporary doctrines of God guilty of “unwarranted historicism” (279).

The bulk of the book exposits first Thomas then Barth on these matters. The chapters on Thomas concentrate on particular Questions in the Prima Pars of the Summa Theologiae (ST). Given the depth of these questions and the mountains of literature on them, one has to choose certain places to focus one’s energies in giving yet another account of them. Wittman emphasizes three specific things in his reading. First, he highlights Thomas’s “moral concern” in these Questions, by which Wittman means Thomas’s belief that right understanding of God “results in pious gratitude and worship” (29). Second, he interprets the relationship between God’s simplicity and perfection as a “complementary interplay” (87). That is, simplicity and perfection guide theological speech by demanding “reciprocal moments of affirmation and negation” (54). Third, ST I.26, on divine blessedness, is Thomas’s summary of God’s eternal self-sufficient unity.

Not every reader of Thomas will share every interpretative judgment Wittman makes along the way. Some will find it easy to nitpick. But it would also be difficult to disagree with his general conclusions: (1) Thomas offers a robust account of God’s being in itself apart from creation. (2) God’s being in itself encompasses God’s activity in creation.

Similarly, the broad strokes of the exposition in the three Barth chapters will spark little debate, even if the details might. In the first of these chapters, Wittman explores how Barth’s doctrine of God in CD II arises from Barth’s belief that the proper object of theological inquiry is God in God’s relation to the world. The second extends this to Barth’s criticism of nominalism, the term Barth assigns to theologies that ascribe an improper distance between creaturely language about God and God in Godself (179). It is worth noting that Barth includes Thomists and the Protestant orthodox in his criticism. Wittman focuses on Barth’s doctrine of election in the next chapter, highlighting especially how it limits what Barth is willing to say about God’s life apart from creation (239-43).

The expository chapters are all well done. In his treatment of both figures, Wittman is judicious. When he does raise concerns, especially about Barth, he proceeds delicately. He acknowledges well Barth’s motivations, identifies the possible tensions they create, and tries to resolve those tensions. He gives various interpretative camps their due without decisively aligning himself with any of them. His desire to pursue the truth of the matter at stake—rather than resolve an interpretative dispute—assists this charity and agility.

In these chapters many readers of Thomas and Barth will find things to consider they had not before. But as is often the case in works such as these, the claims and arguments of the final chapter are those most worth considering. Here Wittman develops constructive judgments about the differences between Thomas and Barth and about what is at stake in them. He argues that their understanding of theology’s object separates them. For Thomas, it is God in Godself. For Barth, it is God in God’s relation to the world (268-9). I think this might be right and identifying it is one of the great strengths of the book.

What does this formal difference between them amount to? Wittman worries that Barth’s understanding of theology’s task creates material deficiencies in Barth’s understanding of the God-world relationship. He assumes that the ability to give a robust description of God’s existence apart from the world is the only way to maintain God’s non-dependence on the world. Wittman also concludes that metaphysics, and especially metaphysics like Thomas’s, are necessary for properly upholding the distinction between God and creation (see especially 293). In doing so, Wittman joins an increasing number of Protestant theologians (see, for instance, Aquinas Among the Protestants, Manfred Svensson and David VanDrunen, eds). Because Barth does not fully articulate an account of God’s being in itself and cannot because of his reliance on a Hegelian rather than Aristotelian understanding of perfection, Barth also cannot properly uphold the distinction between God and creation. Or so Wittmann concludes.

Other approaches to this constructive issue are possible, approaches that stick closer to Barth. One can share Wittman’s concern for maintaining a God-world distinction while remaining ambivalent about Thomas’s (or anyone else’s) metaphysics. God’s non-dependence on creation may not require a conceptually prior account of God’s existence apart from self-determination for creation. Instead, one need only insist that God’s self-determination is merciful. If God’s determination for the world was externally forced upon God or was necessary for God’s perfection, it would not be merciful. No separation between God’s being and act is needed to uphold God’s independence from creation in God’s activity toward it, only specification of the kind of act God’s self-determination is. Mercy, not metaphysics, bears the material weight here.

Such a move may begin to lessen the distance Wittman perceives between Thomas and Barth on these issues. Like Barth, Thomas believes that mercy stands at the beginning of every work of God (ST I.21.4). Thomas affirms too that God’s will is eternally determined in one specific direction—God does not deliberate. And, finally, for both Thomas and Barth, God’s will is God’s being. As such, finding self-determination for creation in Thomas might not be as difficult as one might think. Bearing out these suggestions will have to wait for another day. This book provoked me to reflect on them. I suspect that will be the case for all who care not only about Thomas and Barth, but also about rightly articulating the relationship between God and creation.

Jeffrey Skaff, Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.