“Pass[ing] Understanding:” Liturgy, Thomas, & Van Til’s Oversimplification

“And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God….”

These words constitute (along with others) the “final blessing” or “benediction” at the end of the Holy Eucharist, both Rites I & II, from the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

For years I have pondered the claim of Cornelius Van Til, not just that human reason is “fallen,” that is, debilitated in some way as a result of the Fall of Humanity, but that medieval thinkers, and St. Thomas Aquinas in particular, erroneously hold that human reason, after the fall, remains in its pristine, pre-lapsarian state, and is thus not fallen.

(Not sure if there are sill any serious “vantillians” out there nowadays, but still….)

At the end of a service of Holy Eucharist a few months ago, while con-celebrating with a fellow presbyter at my home parish, I believe that I had an insight into why Van Til is basically wrong. Further, I think that this “case study” is a good example of a deeper problem which characterizes the thought of many conservative evangelicals, even those who are relatively rigorous academically.

Here’s how it happened. My fellow priest who was celebrating on this particular occasion a few weeks ago, inserted the word “human” into the final benediction of the liturgy: “… the peace of God which passeth all human understanding, keep your heart….” [italics mine] This “spontaneous” insertion into the liturgy caught my attention, not merely because I generally regard such insertions as unnecessary, superfluous, and pernicious (participating as they do in the modern enlightenment Romantic tendency toward “expressive individualism”), but also just because it was not clear to me that it was accurate.

That is, it was not at all clear to me that, in fact, the “peace of God” here passes some understanding that is specifically and distinctively human.

Now, of course, I “get” the intention of the celebrant. (And, in the spirit of full disclosure I myself “experimented” with this spontaneous emendation a couple of times myself.) His point was that, surely, nothing can possibly surpass the understanding of God.

But it is precisely here that the folly of such expressive individualism lies, for according to the tradition — as seen, for example, in Plato and St. Thomas — there is no understanding that is not human.  That is, there is no such thing as a “divine understanding.”

Understanding, in short, is a human thing. Only humans (that is, rational animals) know by that discursive process called “understanding.” For Plato (as seen in the penultimate segment of his “line” image in Book VI of the Republic the term here is dianoia (“knowing through”), while for Thomas in the Summa Theologiae it is ratio. For Thomas, God (as well as angels) does not know by “rationization” … he knows things directly, through the simplicity of God’s divine self (which is to say, not through anything at all).

OK, back to Van Til. Van Til says that for Thomas “reason is not fallen.” But this is a horrible oversimplification, for it fails to distinguish between the kind of knowing that humans (characteristically) “do” and the kind of knowing that God “does.” What humans do is dianoia / ratio; what God (and angels … and perhaps exceptional cases in which humans achieve a kind of unmediated knowledge, such as perhaps what St. Augustine reports in Bk VII of the Confessions) does is noesisintellectus.

Does the peace of God pass all understanding? Yes, because only humans “do” understanding; God does not. Hence, the qualification of “human” inserted into “the peace of God which passeth understanding” is not just superfluous but a kind of category mistake.

Does Thomas think that “reason” is fallen? Contra Van Til, yes he does: dianoia / ratio, as a human activity or faculty, is impaired by man’s sin and the fall. However, noesis / intellectus is not fallen, and it might just be possible that maybe just maybe human beings can participate in this divine activity, by grace.

Be that as it may, while the peace of God surely does surpass ratio (which is by definition human), there is no way it could possibly surpass intellectus (which is by definition divine and / or angelic).