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

Written by Tyler R. Wittman Reviewed By Jordan L. Steffaniak

Debates about the doctrine of God continue to rage in contemporary theology. Questions range from what the Creator/creature distinction entails to whether God has any real relation with creation. Many current thinkers overturn some classically held beliefs that God has no real relation with creation. Enter God and Creation in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth by Tyler Wittman, Assistant Professor of Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. His monograph seeks to recover a more classical approach to confessing “God as God” when it comes to thinking about God’s relationship to creation. It is a slightly revised and somewhat expanded version of his St. Andrews PhD thesis and focuses on topics such as the divine act, being, order, and relations.

Wittman locates the importance of his work in light of the Apostle Paul’s distinctively moral aspect of knowledge in Romans 1. Confessing God as God is to know the truth about God and to respond properly in worship—to do otherwise is to refuse his glory (p. 5). Therefore, Wittman’s chief aim is to consider how one can uphold the Creator/creature distinction (p. 11), while insisting upon a relation between God and creation. He goes about this task in three steps, beginning first by expounding the thinking of Thomas Aquinas as it relates to God’s being and his relation to creation before doing the same for Karl Barth, and then concluding with his own systemization. Both historical sections are standard reconstructions that are designed to listen to significant figures in the history of the church to better equip the reader for thinking about the topic (p. 14). His concluding chapter concerning his own systematic thinking on the subject draws upon the insights of these two figures. He concludes that “God’s activity in the economy is absolutely binding on us, but it [his economic activity] need not for that reason be irreducible” (p. 279).

Wittman’s book has several worthy features. Initially, however, it is necessary to identify some potential cautions. First, while he is clearly well acquainted with the primary literature, engagement with the secondary literature is lacking throughout the work. For example, a significant aspect of the theological inquiry that Wittman attempts to engage is the nature of relations—just what does it mean for God to “relate” to the world? While his summary of Thomas Aquinas is ripe for theological thinking, there is no reference to contemporary metaphysical treatments on relations. While the book is not primarily concerned with the metaphysical intelligibility of God’s relation to the world or with presenting metaphysical models, being focused on the thinking of Aquinas and Barth, Wittman states that the purpose is not purely for historical consideration but for contemporary appropriation (p. 14). This end goal would have been strengthened by more engagement with other thinkers on this topic.

Secondly, at points Wittman’s arguments lack clear definitions of terms and concepts. For example, God as “pure act” plays a central role in Thomistic thinking and in Wittman’s explanation but lacks any explicit definition. Elsewhere, Wittman attempts to circumvent the problem of simplicity and God’s freedom with reference to the “two moment inquiry” wherein God is absolutely free but hypothetically necessary (p. 88). While this is a worthwhile distinction, it lacks a robust treatment.

But Wittman’s book also delivers several compelling areas worthy of commendation. First, his choice of interlocutors serves the reader well. Thinking and wrestling alongside Aquinas and Barth greatly benefits the reader. Moreover, in his treatment of these two figures, Wittman achieves his goal of retrieval. He regularly exposes the reader to the key insights that Aquinas and Barth provide on the topic and attempts to use them to uncover forgotten issues that lurk behind the surface of contemporary treatments of God’s relation to creation.

Second, Wittman provides clarity over defining certain attributes of God in strictly negative or apophatic terms. Oftentimes discussions about divine simplicity or God’s relation to the world are intended to be stated in entirely negative terms but never indicate to the reader that this decision has been made. Wittman does not fall into this trap. He plainly states his definition of simplicity is strictly negative along with his understanding of God’s relation to the world. While some may wish for a positive treatment of these subjects, it is commendable to follow an apophatic route so long as one doesn’t promise to deliver an overly positive treatment.

Finally, Wittman offers several insightful reflections on retrieving divine names to chasten concepts of God and dogmatic reasoning on divine goodness and faithfulness. His conceptual and exegetical insights inspire further reflection and exhortation. One only wishes these reflections extended further.

In sum, while the topic of God and his relation to creation is burgeoning, Wittman’s book is worthy of critical engagement but also slightly disappointing. While Wittman’s work offers numerous helpful insights, by not engaging wider literature and not expanding his own contemporary retrieval, it missed a real opportunity to become a required text for all on the topic. For graduate students, the book provides a welcome and an even-handed summary concerning how the Christian tradition has wrestled with the doctrine of God as he is in himself and how he relates to creation. However, it lacks the wider scholarly engagement many academics will desire.

Jordan L. Steffaniak

Jordan L. Steffaniak
University of Birmingham
Birmingham, England, UK

Other Articles in this Issue

“How can I motivate my students more?” In theological education, as in all education, students will gain the most from our classes and programs if they are deeply motivated and therefore engaged...

For those who enjoy debates, there has never been a debate more routinely rehashed than the debate over God’s existence...

Locke is often presented as an eminent forerunner to the Enlightenment, a philosopher who hastened Europe’s departure from Christian orthodoxy and “turned the tide” toward a modern, secularist orientation...

In the last two decades, Bunyan studies has seen an increase in scholarship that examines his life and thought from various angles, such as the psychological experiences and socio-political convictions found in his allegorical and autobiographical works...

More than any event in early American history, the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804 revealed Federalist clergy to be the moral guardians of American society and exposed the moral fault lines within the Federalist party itself...