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Friday, September 23, 2011

Aquinas on the Soul

Another book I picked up at the library was the one on universal salvation by Rob Bell, Love Wins. And speaking of universal salvation, today I was looking up 'the four last things' (death, judgment, heaven, and hell) in an article in The Catholic Encyclopedia, and I cringed when I saw this description of universal salvation therein ....

The restitutionist view, which in its Origenist form was condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 543, and later at the Fifth General Council (see APOCATASTASIS), is the cardinal dogma of modern Universalism, and is favoured more or less by liberal Protestants and Anglicans. Based on an exaggerated optimism for which present experience offers no guarantee, this view assumes the all-conquering efficacy of the ministry of grace in a life of probation after death, and looks forward to the ultimate conversion of all sinners and the voluntary disappearance of moral evil from the universe.

Right, the last thing we'd want to do is be overly optimistic where God's concerned - yikes! But anyway, the reason I'd been looking up the four last things was that I'm reading an interesting paper about Thomas Aquinas' body/soul theory and how that relates to existence after death ... "Resurrection, Reassembly, and Reconstitution: Aquinas on the Soul" by Eleonore Stump (the paper can be downloaded here). Here's just a bit from the beginning of it ....

Resurrection, Reassembly, and Reconstitution: Aquinas on the Soul
by Eleonore Stump

In his entry on the immortality of the soul in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Richard Swinburne calls our attention to a problem often raised in connection with the Christian doctrine of resurrection. He says:

[...] if I come to live again, the question arises as to what makes some subsequent human me, for [at death] my body will be largely if not entirely destroyed. If the answer is given that (most of) the atoms of my original body will be reassembled into bodily form, there are two problems. First, many of the atoms may no longer exist; they may have been transmuted into energy. And second, what proportion of the atoms do we need? Sixty per cent, seventy per cent, or what? If it is mere atoms which make some body mine and so some living human me, then no body will be fully mine unless it has all my atoms. Yet some of my atoms, even if not destroyed, will have come to form other human bodies.1

... (snip) ...

This problem is thought by many to afflict Aquinas’s theory of resurrection too, because Aquinas does not identify a human being with his soul .... On Aquinas’s own view, the soul is the form of the body, and a human being is a composite of matter and form .... As far as that goes, on Aquinas’s account how are we to understand what happens to a human being between earthly death and resurrection in an afterlife? Aquinas believes that the soul is capable of existence without the body; between earthly death and resurrection, he thinks that the soul persists separated from the body. But the separated soul is not a material composite. So what are we to say about a human being in the period in which all that remains of him is the separated soul? Does he continue to exist during that period? If he does, then in what sense is it true to say that he is a material composite? On the other hand, if he is a material composite, then how could it be true that he exists when the matter composing him is gone?

In this paper, I want to try to shed some light on these questions and on Aquinas’s theory of the resurrection by looking with some care at Aquinas’s basic metaphysics of matter and form as well as at his theological treatments of the persistence of the soul and the nature of the resurrection .......


Blogger Mike L said...

I look with great admiration on St. Thomas for his works. He set out to show that our Catholic faith was not unreasonable, and developed a logical model scientists would call it a theory, in which our faith is logical and reasonable. But just because something is "not unreasonable" does not mean that it is reality. I think that we forget this and too often assume that Thomas' masterpiece does not always match reality, particularly the physical world. My hope is that someday soon another genius will come along that can give us a more realistic model to work with.

The mismatch between Thomas' model and reality is shown in the proposed problem with the resurrection. Given Swineburne's problem, I would as "who is being resurrected?" After all, as we go through life the atoms in our body are constantly being removed and replace by others so that physically we constantly change into different people, physically, as time goes on. I will simply say this is a modern problem since in Thomas's day atoms were not known, and again we see the model not fitting well with the reality we know today.


Mike L

9:19 AM  
Blogger solarblogger said...

I get the impression that Aquinas was more certain that the soul survives death than he was of his theory of what the soul is. In which case, he is in the position of trying to explain how his soul theory works with the intermediate state. I think he takes the idea that it could still work on faith (using the term in its everyday rather than religious sense). God could have other ways of making this possible that we don't know about. The theory of the soul could be altered if it could be shown conclusively that what we knew about the intermediate state contradicted it. But since the intermediate state is something we know little about, it would not make sense to see it as a defeater of his theory of the soul.

11:57 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


Yeah, I agree. It seems like Thomas made a lot of stuff up out of whole cloth, and relied on others, from Aristototle to Dionysus, for much of the rest. Keith Ward thinks some immaterial parts of people keep existing after death but that they end up in different kinds of physical forms, not their original bodies. - that seems more likely to me

1:06 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


Yeah, I agree that the idea of a soul that persists after death isn't defeated by Aquinas' lack of a good way to explain how that can be so. I guess the way he relied on Aristotle in explaining the idea of transubstantiation is also becoming questionable now with what is known of quantum phyiscs.

1:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is said Aquinas did not prove the inherent immortality of the human soul. God created it; God can annihilate it. God chooses not to destroy it, however. The souls of human beings continue to live on. The resurrection of the body takes place at the Second Coming with the soul is reunited with it. How do you interpret Matthew 10:28 in relation to this? Henry Wynns

6:45 AM  

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