Aquinas Reconsidered

Article by   February 2018

Richard A. Muller, Review of Thomas Aquinas by K. Scott Oliphint, foreword by Michael A. G. Haykin (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017).

Scott Oliphint's highly negative verdict on the thought of Thomas Aquinas demands some response if only because of the need to have, in Reformed circles, the balanced understanding of Aquinas' theology and philosophy that Oliphint fails to provide. It is a fairly consistent refrain throughout Oliphint's study that Aquinas failed in an attempt to "synthesize 'purely' philosophical with theological principia"--failed because "the two principia cannot be merged" (p. 124). These "ultimately incompatible principia" are, according to Oliphint, "the neutrality of natural reason ... and the truth of God's revelation" (p. 126). I propose to take up the two questions that are the focus of Oliphint's book, the problem of knowledge, specifically knowledge of God; and in a second part of the review, Aquinas' understanding of the analogy of being, the proofs, and the relationship of divine simplicity to the Trinity. Concluding comments will follow as a third part.

Oliphint rests his examination of the praeambula fidei on Ralph McInerny's recent study as if McInerny argued that the preambles, namely, the proofs of Thomas' Summa, are autonomous "purely philosophical" arguments, products of "pure nature" (p. 79, n63), "outside the realm of theology," viewed by Aquinas as necessary "in order properly to assess the knowledge of God" (pp. 25-26, 27). What McInerny actually says is that "It is obvious that the phrase 'preambles of faith' is one devised and used from the side of belief; it is the believer who compares truths about God that he holds only thanks to the grace of faith and those truths about God that philosophers come to know by way of demonstrative proof."1 This is a very different reading of Aquinas than Oliphint's claim that "Thomas thinks that natural reason forms the foundational structure of which revelation is the superstructure" (p. 13). Oliphint is mistaken in his reading of Thomism as attempting to merge the antithetical "principia" of a neutral "natural reason" and the truth of revelation.

When Aquinas makes his distinction between those truths concerning God that can be known through human reason and those that exceed the capability of reason and must be known by revelation, he is not segmenting off rational from revealed truths: rather he is placing his entire rational presentation within the compass of sacred doctrine which deals with God "not only so far as he can be known through creatures just as philosophers knew him ... but also so far as He is known to himself alone and revealed to others."2 Aquinas did not view truths of reason and truths of revelation as incompatible or in need of synthesis. Underlying the theological project of Aquinas' two Summas is the assumption that what is true is true whatever its immediate source, given that all truth ultimately comes from God who is true. Aquinas' project is not an attempt to synthesize incompatibles.

The basis for this particular misinterpretation appears in Oliphint's definition of duplex veritatis modus, incorrectly rendered as "truth in two ways" and "double ways of truth."3 "Modus" is nominative singular--with the result that the term indicates one "twofold way" or "twofold mode" of truth and not two ways of truth. The mistranslation is probably what leads Oliphint to confuse duplex veritatis modus with duplex veritas or "double truth." Oliphint goes on to comment "that it is possible for something to be true in philosophy but false in theology, or false in theology but true in philosophy," namely, double truth (p. 129). Aquinas affirms a twofold way of knowing truth about God--but he denied double truth. From Aquinas' perspective, reason teaches that God exists (which is true) and revelation teaches that God exists (which is true): there is no incompatibility between the rational and the revealed truth, because it is the same truth, but in the case of revelation in a different "mode" because from a higher, clearer source.

It is also does not follow from the absence of a discussion of the noetic effect of sin in Aquinas' praeambula that the issue was not broached and understood in his theology. One need look no further than Aquinas' Summa theologiae to find that he views "weakness, ignorance, malice, and concupiscence... as wounds of nature consequent on sin" and that he explicitly indicates that these wounds were "inflicted on the whole of human nature as a result of the first parent's sin": reason is "deprived of order" and wounded with "ignorance" and "obscured, especially in practical matters."4 Moreover, in the very argument that Oliphint cites from Aquinas' Commentary on the Gospel of John as a basic statement of Aquinas' view of the powers of natural reason,5 Aquinas also comments on the phrase "the world did not know him" (John 1:10) to the effect that "this lack is attributed to man's guilt."6 Aquinas' exposition of Romans 1:19-20, moreover, is much like that of Calvin, Vermigli, and various of the Reformed orthodox: there is knowledge of some truth concerning God among the Gentiles, to the end that they are left "without excuse" in their ungodliness.7 This limited knowledge of God cannot indicate "what God is [quid est Deus]" inasmuch as it arises only from the light of reason and sense knowledge--although such aspects of God as his goodness, wisdom, and power can be known.8 In their guilt, human beings fail to use the knowledge of God that they have and with "perverse reasoning" change true knowledge of God into false teachings.9 Contra Oliphint, Aquinas has not "wholly misread and misunderstood what Scripture is arguing" (p. 44).

The problem is most apparent in Oliphint's highly selective use of Aquinas' commentary on John 1:9, which leaves out the portions that undermine his argument. Aquinas indicates that human beings are enlightened by "the light of natural knowledge," which insofar as it is light is such by participation in the "true light," which is the Word. He adds, "If any one is not enlightened, it is due to himself, because he turns from the light that enlightens."10 Aquinas also distinguishes this true light, given to all by God, from which human beings turn away, from the "false light" which "the philosophers prided themselves on having," citing Romans 1:21.11 Despite what Aquinas says quite clearly, Oliphint concludes, "We should make it clear here that Thomas does not think that the 'enlightening' of which John speaks necessarily includes divine truth or content" (p. 15).

For Aquinas, reason, "the light of nature," is itself a gift of God to human beings in the original creation of humanity that is capable of knowing not only that God exists, but that God is good, wise, and powerful. Where reason falls short, because of its finitude, its rootedness in sense perception, and the errors brought about by sin, is that, without the aid of revelation, it cannot know the truths of salvation. This "Thomistic" assumption should have a familiar ring in Reformed circles. It is paralleled by the very first sentence of the Westminster Confession--as also by the second article of the Belgic Confession, and Calvin's commentary on the passage. Oliphint's claim that Aquinas' reading has "no basis" in the text of Scripture becomes an indictment of Calvin and the Reformed tradition as well.

To be continued...

1. Ralph McInerny, Praeambula fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2006), pp. 30-31.

2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia, q.1, a. 6, corpus; cf. M. F. Sparrow, "Natural Knowledge of God and the Principles of 'Sacra Doctrina,'" in Angelicum, 69/4 (1992), pp. 471-491, here p. 489; cf. Jean-Pierre Torrell, Aquinas's Summa: Background, Structure, & Reception, trans. Benedict M. Guevin (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2005), p. 19.

3. Oliphint, Aquinas, pp. 9, 129, The phrase duplex veritatis modus is from Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, I.3.

4. Aquinas, Summa theologiae, IaIIae, q.85, a.3, corpus. Note here that "practical matters" is a reference to the praxis dimension of theology which relates both to the moral life of Christians and to promise of salvation, as distinct from the contemplative dimension of theology which relates to the knowledge of "divine things."

5. Oliphint, Aquinas, p. 14, citing Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 3 vols., trans. Fabian Larcher and James Weisheipl, with intro. and notes by Daniel Keating and Matthew Levering (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), I, pp. 54-55.

6. Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, I, p. 59.

7. Thomas Aquinas, In omnes D. Pauli Apostoli Epistolas, 3 vols. (Liège: Dessain, 1857), vol. I, Ad Romanos, lectura 6 (pp. 30-31).

8. Aquinas, Ad Romanos, lectura 6 (p. 31).

9. Aquinas, Ad Romanos, lectura 7 (pp. 34-35).

10. Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, I. pp. 54-55.

11. Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, I. p. 53.

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