Infideles Et Philosophi: Assent, Untruth, and Natural Knowledge of the Simple God
Author(s)Walkey, Jeffrey M.
Contributor(s)Mueller, Joseph, Long, D. Stephen, Johnson, Mark
Existence of God
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AbstractVictor Preller’s “reformulation” of St. Thomas has impacted many contemporary theologians and philosophers, among them, George Lindbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, Bruce Marshall, D. Stephen Long, Fergus Kerr, to name only a few. According to Kerr, Preller is responsible for bringing to the fore St. Thomas’s denial that unbelievers can be truly said to believe “God exists.” In particular, Preller draws our attention to ST II-II, q. 2, a. 2, ad 3. Seemingly, in light of this passage, all non-believers have a defect in cognition with respect to the simple God. As such, they cannot be said to believe “God exists” at all (totaliter). According to Preller, it suggests that pre-Christian pagan philosophers not only failed to know the existence of God, but that they could not in principle have known apart from the graces of special revelation and faith. By virtue of the Aristotelian axiom used by St. Thomas, which states, “to know simple things defectively is not to know them at all,” they were not merely wrong about God, but entirely ignorant of him. Given the impact of this interpretation, it is important that Preller has interpreted ST II-II, q. 2, a. 2, ad 3 rightly. I argue, however, that he has not. Preller’s inattentiveness to the context, as well as the specific meaning of certain terms, contributes to a misunderstanding. If we properly identify the infideles and determine the defectus cognitionis at issue, we see that St. Thomas is not claiming that the philosophers (philosophi) qua pagan per se suffer from the relevant defect. This would contradict the numerous affirmations of pagan philosophical knowledge of God found elsewhere in the corpus. Not suffering from this defect, they are not qua pagan ignorant of the existence of God. The philosophi are neither on St. Thomas’s radar in ST II-II, q. 2, a. 2, ad 3 nor necessarily (though potentially) guilty of the sort of defect in cognition that St. Thomas has in mind. Ultimately, this passage does not mean what Preller and others have taken it to mean. Consequently, it does not ground any denial of the possibility of pre-Christian pagan philosophical knowledge of God.