Gilson, Saint Thomas and The Self-Attesting God

First, the Problem. The famous Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson writes, surely accurately, in his Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas,

“… at the very place where the Summa of Alexander and the Commentary of St. Bonaventure undertake to show that the existence of God is evident, St. Thomas devotes an article to proving that it is not.

“We have identified the theses to which St. Thomas objects, but we must now be more precise about the real sense and significance of his refutation of them. His basic objection amounts to this: that all the arguments that God’s existence is self-evident depend upon a common error—they mistake for God Himself what is only an effect caused by God. For example, if we admit with John Damascene that we have natural knowledge of the existence of God, this knowledge will be at most an effect of God or His image stamped in our thought.

“But to infer from this that God exists, demands a demonstration. If we say with the Augustinians that God can be immediately known by the intellect as light is immediately visible to the sight, or that God is more interior to the soul than the soul itself, it must be replied that the only beings directly accessible to our knowledge are sensible things.

“A demonstration is therefore necessary if the reason is to ascend from the realities thus given to it in experience to the reality of God who is not so given.

“St. Anselm’s argument contains the same error. If we begin with the principle that there is a being than which none greater can be conceived, it goes without saying that such a being exists, but his existence is only evident by virtue of this supposition.

“In other words the argument amounts to saying that we cannot understand that God exists and conceive at the same time that He does not exist. But we can very well think that there does not exist a being than which none greater can be conceived. In brief, the idea of existence is never the equivalent of existence. Existence is established or demonstrated, it is not deduced.”37.


“There would be no atheists if the existence of God were so evident that it required no demonstration”

And with that last my problem is brought into sharp focus.

For, while appreciating and learning from St. Thomas as an aid to “faith seeking understanding,” I have always been far more sympathetic to Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventure, et al. on this matter than to St. Thomas here, precisely because according to Sacred Scripture, God Himself reveals His own existence to all persons, leaving us “without excuse” before him.

The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world—Jn. 1:9

And from what I can gather, with a single exception I can think of, almost no one I have known in almost five decades was converted to Christ in His Church except by a direct encounter with Him by His grace, often through reading the Gospels, or proximity to sacraments, and / or by the hearing of the Word of the Gospel.

I certainly was not converted to our Faith as a youth by St. Thomas’ Five Proofs for the existence of God, even if later I found them helpful in certain respects. I don’t deny their general validity for apologetics. To the contrary they supplement other proofs in showing that our Faith is rational.

But as for Gilson saying,

“There would be no atheists if the existence of God were so evident that it required no demonstration”

this seems palpably false to me, since our rebellious sin nature accounts for and precedes a determination to systematically and lastingly pursue a life of dogmatic belligerent doubt and atheism.

Existential vs. Cynical Doubt

If one can conceive of ‘A,’ one can conceive of what is not ‘A’, or the absence of ‘A’. Certainly, then, I distinguish existential doubt from cynical doubt and denial.

Existential doubt in a reflective person is something which can sometimes simply occur unexpectedly, but it is not wanted, not pursued and nurtured. Rather, it is a prod to deepen prayer, contemplation and study more profoundly.

Existential doubt is allowed by God for our ultimate Good on route to salvation.

The Little Flower

St. Therese of Lisieux, for example, experienced this temptation to doubt for a long period in her final passion and Dark Night of the soul. But not for a moment did she invite such doubt or nurture it cynically. Instead she discerned in it, as her spiritual father, St. John of the Cross, did, God’s weaning us from the dependency on spiritual feelings and delights, and perhaps even from rationalist argument-props.

And so she took refuge rather in the apparent darkness of this Cross which is really a Light “too bright for our eyes”.

Consider: who cannot see the difference between the temptation to “doubt” in St. Therese and the viciously cynical doubt of, say, a Voltaire, David Hume or a Friedrich Nietzsche?

St. Therese’s “doubt” was in fact the deepest faith, a clinging to the hem of Christ’s garment, the deepest of graces, graces which He offers us, though these appear as “darkness” to the soul’s dim eyes which He seeks to dilate in time through salvific spiritual suffering and trust.


For Voltaire, Hume or Nietzsche, however, doubt was cynical, the deliberate rejection of even the theological virtue of Hope. They sought nothing less than the insane ascendancy of the almighty Self, preferring “genius” (which, being poor fools, they supposed for themselves) to humility; power, fame and human autonomy to any bending of the knee before God their Maker. They deliberately viewed “facts” very differently than a man yielding to God’s grace. So God abandoned them to the desires of their heart. Because they rejected the Self-Attesting revelation of God to all men (Rom.1).

St. Paul teaches,

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those men that detain the truth of God in injustice: [19] Because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God hath manifested it unto them.

[20] For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity:

[20] For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.

[21] Because that, when they knew God, they have not glorified him as God, or given thanks; but became vain in their thoughts, and their foolish heart was darkened. [22] For professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.” (emphasis mine)

In sum:

Reason, it seems to me then, if pursued with good will, leads us to “The Way, the Truth and the Life”. Reason, proofs and arguments however allow no exit of excuse. In this I totally agree with St. Thomas. But I’ve seldom seen reason and argument work faith in many persons in a primary way, even if it assists and assures us after God Himself has already convinces us by grace.

Again, reason and “facts” are viewed very differently by Christians and determined nonbelievers.

St. John declared in the fourth Gospel that Jesus Christ is “the true light, which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world. [1:10]

And so God Himself leaves us without excuse.

St. Paul in 1 Corinthians exults in the Self-Attesting God of revelation:

“For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not in wisdom of speech, lest the cross of Christ should be made void. [18] For the word of the cross, to them indeed that perish, is foolishness; but to them that are saved, that is, to us, it is the power of God. [19] For it is written: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the prudence of the prudent I will reject. [20]

“Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?

[21] For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world, by wisdom, knew not God, it pleased God, by the foolishness of our preaching, to save them that believe.

[22] For both the Jews require signs, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: [23] But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness: [24] But unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. [25] For the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

And so God Himself places all persons everywhere under obligation to follow His revealing graces which, by every road, lead us to Him and to salvation. And we are all “without excuse” should we determine to reject those Self-disclosing gifts.

“I believe in order that I may understand” — Anselm of Canterbury

“Crede, ut intelligas” — St. Augustine

I Am Therefore I Think

Lk. 16:31: He said to him,If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’“— SH


Along related lines:

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