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Non et Sic: Don’ts and dos of Protestant Aquinas Scholarship

The early twentieth century saw, yet again, a renewed interest in the theology of Thomas Aquinas among Roman Catholics (for an overview of this ressourcement of Thomistic theology see, for example, the Introduction of Nicholas Healy’s book). Protestant scholarship on Aquinas, however, suffered from serious neglect, or worse, serious distortion during the same period. Among many post-nineteenth century Protestants, Thomas, because of his (justifiably) high esteem among Roman Catholics, was seen as one who must be opposed if one is to remain Protestant. Among Reformed Protestants, for example, his thought was often misunderstood, even distorted, in order to juxtapose it to the premier Reformed theologian, John Calvin. But, as Arvin Vos has shown, on a good many key issues proposed by Modern Protestants as points of disagreement, Calvin and Aquinas in fact did not disagree, in substance at least.

In fact, a whole body of scholarship has now roundly established that the early Protestant movement (up through the 17th century) was characterized not by simple discontinuity with the western tradition developed from the Patristics through the medieval period. Rather, it is characterized by large scale continuity with that tradition. Thomas and Thomism in particular feature centrally in this body of literature. The historical truth is: Thomas was not a Roman Catholic theologian because the reformation had not occurred. Thomas was (and is) a Christian, Catholic theologian, from whom Roman Catholics and Protestants alike ought to learn and with whom they ought to engage. Thankfully, the early twenty-first century is seeing a kind of Thomistic renaissance among certain Protestant groups. Unfortunately, there are some who persist in early twentieth century errors.

In this post, I want to briefly review two cases of recent Protestant scholarship on Aquinas. The first, representative of that tired Modern Protestant narrative of Aquinas falls under my ‘non!’ The second is a survey of the new renaissance of Thomistic engagement among Protestants, and, receives from me a hearty ‘sic!’

Thomas Aquinas, by K. Scott Oliphint

Published by P&R Publishing as part of their “Great Thinkers” series, one may be forgiven for having held out hope that this volume would join the growing number of historically accurate, fair, and critical works on Thomas and the Reformed tradition that have come out over the past quarter century.  It becomes apparent early on, however, that joining that crowd is  what Oliphint has in mind. Rather, his overall thesis is that “significant aspects of Thomas’s thought…either cannot be incorporated into the theology that is consistent with the emphases of the Reformation, or, if incorporated, must be reworked and reoriented…” (2). “Whatever ‘Reformed Thomism’ might be, or might mean, in our current context, it cannot be a synthesis of biblically foreign Thomistic teachings and a consistent, biblical theology.”(3)

This gets to the rhetoric of Oliphint’s critique of Thomas, which is different from the substance. Throughout the book Oliphint charges Thomas with a lack of biblical insight. Had Thomas “looked more carefully” at various key passages of scripture, he would not have come to the ‘unbiblical’ positions that he (supposedly) came to (123). Indeed, he had the Bible and so could have come to a right understanding of key ‘principia’ (principles of theology)(2-3), but instead Thomas “paid closer attention to Aristotle and his Muslim followers” than to the Bible (50). Thus, “his understanding of Scripture was, in significant ways, overshadowed by his speculative thinking” (5).

As for the substance of Oliphint’s critique, he says that Thomas went wrong with respect to two theological principia: the “foundation of knowledge” (ch. 2) and “the foundation of Existence” (ch. 3). In brief, Oliphint charges Aquinas with holding to a two-fold structure of reality (nature/grace) to which corresponds a two-fold structure of human knowledge of God (natural reason/revelation). What is the problem with this? According to Oliphint, Thomas thought he could build a Christian theology from an almost entirely natural theology that was basically pagan and Aristotelian. So he took Greek philosophical theology nearly wholesale and and then simply add a few ‘Christian’ elements on top (13). But that means that his foundation was pagan, not Christian. So, “He built his house of philosophical theology on sand…” His theology, then, built on the notion of pure reason “will crumble and fall” unless it is put on “the solid foundation of Scripture” (50).

Thus, Oliphint concludes, though Thomas “comes closer to a Christian understanding” of epistemology and metaphysics than Kant and post-Kantian thinkers (25), he nevertheless “too easily conceded that the ‘absolutes’ of Greek philosophy were coincident with the Christian God. In that concession, he lost the Christian God altogether and was left with concepts just as useless as theirs (124).” Oliphint does allow that “there are elements of Thomas’s work that could be instructive and useful, at least from a historical perspective,” but given his false starting points, his philosophical theology is of little use unless and until it be “filtered through the biblical theology of Reformed thought” (126).

I will not here go into the manifold errors and problems with Oliphint’s exposition and critique of Aquinas. For a fuller review see here; for more details on problems relating to Oliphint’s understanding of Aquinas and use of sources, see Richard Muller’s three-fold review (here, here, and here). Here, I’ll rather simply draw attention to a couple of representative internal problems of this work: inconsistencies and poor exposition.

Reading the text closely, one finds oneself remarking, “I thought you just said that was bad,” far too often. To give but one example, Oliphint chides the “medieval theologians, including Thomas,” for neglecting “to incorporate in their theological system…the radical effect that sin has on the mind of fallen man” (33). They tended to emphasize the affects of the fall on the will of humans rather than on the mind, he says. (34).

Yet, read just a few pages more and Oliphint proposes, citing Paul’s argument in Romans 1, that “the knowledge of God that we have (by ‘we’ Oliphint means all humans), as given, is abundantly clear and understood. There is no obscurity in God’s revelation” (47). So, all humans do in fact have “personal, and specific knowledge” of God (48). The problem is that they do not ‘recognize’ that they have such knowledge (48). Why not? Because, “we sinfully refuse to acknowledge what we know” (49) And why do we refuse to acknowledge what we know? Because “all we want to do, apart from redemption in Christ, is sin” (49). Sin, affecting the will, “causes us to suppress the truth that God gives through his creation” (49). Ins’t that a will problem after all? Such inconsistencies leaves one frustratingly scratching the head.

There are also some major expositional problems. Again, I’ll give just one example. Oliphint insists that Thomas’ notion of ‘pure reason’ is synonymous with a notion of autonomous reason. It is natural reason “by itself” (13) and “alone” (74). This notion, Oliphint critiques, stands in contrast to passages like the opening of John’s Gospel, where “there is a universal, revelational activity attributed to the Logos… in which we all (again, all humanity), by virtue of that activity, know God” (40, emphasis original). This, he says stands as a “direct refutation” of any notion of natural reason, including that of Thomas.

Yet, just a few pages prior he had cited a portion of Thomas’ commentary on those opening lines of John’s Gospel. Among those lines are these: “For all men coming into this visible world are enlightened by the light of natural knowledge through participating in this true light, which is the source of all the light of natural knowledge participated in by men” (35, emphasis mine). One may wish to demur from Thomas’ notion of participation, but in light of this passage—cited by Oliphint himself—one cannot maintain that Thomas held a notion of autonomous reason. Natural reason, yes. That is, reasoning done by humans according to the human nature. But their rational capabilities are only so as human participants in the Reason, the divine Logos. Such expositions of Thomas boarder on the disingenuous.

Well, as Paul would say, let me show you a better way.

Aquinas Among the Protestants, edited by Manfred Svensson and David VanDrunen

 This collection of essays, published by Wiley Blackwell, is a welcome addition to the ongoing scholarship concerning Thomas’ influence on Protestant theology. It provides a weighty and helpful correction to much of Oliphint’s previously mentioned work.

The volume is perfectly divided into two parts of seven essays each. The first part is historical, containing five essays on the influence of Aquinas among early Modern Reformed and Lutheran theologians, and two detailing the Modern movement toward critique of Thomas among the Reformed and Lutheran camps. Part two consists of seven essays modeling ways in which contemporary Protestant theologians can and should engage the philosophical, theological, ethical, and political thought of Aquinas. In all, this is a very helpful volume to have for any Protestant who not only wants a greater appreciation for her own tradition coming out of the Reformation, but also of that greater Christian tradition of which Protestantism is but one strand.

Let me note a few points of contrast between this work and the previous. In the introduction, Svensson and VanDrunen lament the Modern “Protestant anti-Thomism”: this kind of scholarship “fosters neither interesting polemics nor critical appreciation of Aquinas in Protestant circles” (1). Further, those who regard “Aquinas’s thought as hardly more than a superficially baptized Aristotelianism” have simply not owned up to the mass of scholarship on him in the twentieth century (6). Thankfully, Protestants have not always been guilty of this kind of scholarship: “There was a time, however, when Protestant theologians and philosophers read Aquinas’s work widely” (1).

That is beginning to happen again: “As Protestants have gained increasing historical understanding of their own tradition, as Protestants and Roman Catholics of many stripes have entered into serious conversations with one another, and as Christians of various confessions have looked for helpful resources to address the challenges of postmodernism and secularism, the time has been ripe for revived Protestant exploration of Aquinas and his relation to Reformation Christianity” (16). And this book goes a long way to offering such a revivification.

To highlight a few examples, John Bolt’s essay, “Doubting Reformational anti-Thomism” gives still further reasons to question the kind of critiques of Thomas issued by late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Neo Calvinists (many of  which find their way from Kuper through Van Til down to Oliphint). Paul Helm’s essay, “Nature and Grace,” gives a far more fair dealing to Thomas’ conception of it, to the role it played in his theology, as well as to the influence it had on reformed theologians of the early Modern period.

Sebastian Rehnman’s marvelous essay, “Philosophy Explored,” places the causal argument for God’s existence in its proper context (rather than the feigned context of ‘natural and autonomous reason’) and argues strenuously for the necessity of such arguments. He also shows, along with Daniel Westberg (“The Influence of Aquinas on Protestant Ethics”), that Aquinas’ understanding of grace, virtue, and habits is not only consistent with Protestant emphases on justification by faith alone, but was in fact  appropriated among early Modern Protestants in their doctrine of sanctification (not to mention, Rehnman shows, how his virtue ethics is proving to be far superior to so many of the Kantian and post-Kantian ethical theories bandied about in the Modern period).

It seems, then, that Protestants may indeed engage with Aquinas, and with more benefit than merely a more nuanced “historical perspective,” as Oliphint suggests. Rather, Thomas has proven  to be an important and influential dialogue partner in the Reformed tradition, in much the same way (though, to be sure, not to the same degree) that Augustine has been.

I must say that I throw my hat in with the sentiments of Svensson and VanDrunen when they conclude their introduction: “…we believe that serious and accurate engagement with the texts and legacy of Thomas Aquinas can only benefit Protestant intellectual life” (17).

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is professor of theology at Yellowstone Theological Institute in Bozeman, MT, where he lives with his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids.

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