A Question About T.F. Torrance’s Reading of Thomas’ Aristotelian Divine ‘Inertia’

A Question About T.F. Torrance’s Reading of Thomas’ Aristotelian Divine ‘Inertia’ :

My attention has recently been helpfully drawn to the following set of claims by T.F. Torrance:

“Now let us consider the other concept mentioned above, that of inertia. It is not difficult to trace its source either, in late Patristic and medieval theology — not to mention Neoplatonic and Arabian thought — particularly as the doctrine of the immutability and impassibility of God became tied up with the Aristotelian notion of the unmoved mover or acentre of absolute rest which was resurrected and powerfully integrated with Latin scholastic philosophy, science, and theology. In theology itself, it induced a deistic disjunction between God and the world, which scholastic thought tried to modify through bringing into play all four Aristotelian causes, the ‘final’ and ‘formal’ along with the ‘material’ and ‘efficient’ causes. The effect of this, however, was not to overcome the dualist modes of thought inherited from St. Augustine, the Magister Theologiae, but actually to harden the dualism by throwing it into a causal structure. This was particularl
y apparent in the conception of sacraments as “causing grace”, which was further aggravated (as in the doctrine of “real presence”) by the acceptance of Aristotle’s definition of place as “the immobile limit of the containing body”. In mediaeval science, on the other hand, the conception of a causal system ultimately grounded in and determined by a centre of absolute rest had the effect of obstructing attempts to develop emperical interpretations of nature for it denigrated contingentia as irrational.” [Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Frame of Mind, 24-5]

There is much going on here and at stake, but there is one element in particular that I would like to pick up on since it resonates with Torrance’s critical project, and of the integrity of the ecumenical conversations he hoped to make possible (such as those ecumenically relevant engagements in the collection Theology in Reconciliation).

Arguably TFT did not approach reading the late patristic and the medieval traditions in a properly careful way in his attempt to historically pin down his account of metaphysical ‘dualism’.  His comments on Augustine and Thomas here may well be a good example of that misconstrual. Let us take Thomas’ use of ‘unmoved mover’. He is not advocating divine inertia, as TFT claims. Far from it since for him God is actus purus, and as Nicholas Lash once commented on this Thomas, ‘a verb’, a doing. The concept is developed particularly in order to pick up on Aristotle, but also to subject him to something of a Christian reconstruction. In other words, the concept functions differently in Thomas’ hands. The ‘unmoved’ is a reference to the cosmic, i.e., that no-thing can move God since God who God is, and that does not make God prone to the caprices and manipulations of creatures. But God moves, moves all things in fact (and it would be important to be careful here, since this is not an advocacy of the kinds of determinism that modernity’s flattening of ‘causality’ would have it be), and is mover of God’s own life. That enables Thomas to articulate God Augustinianly as pure Gift, Self-Giver… Quite a different account from the one the likes of TFT and Colin Gunton, among others (including certain neo-Thomists who were largely those TFT was reacting against), would provide of him.


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