Results tagged “Aquinas” from Reformation21 Blog

Reforming Apologetics

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J.V. Fesko, Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019. 250pp. Paperback.

Christians often polarize one another over their approaches to apologetics. While different apologetic schools compete for dominance in Reformed churches, contextual studies of classic Reformed thought on the subject are often missing from current conversations. John Fesko seeks to fill this gap by exploring and retrieving classic Reformed ideas and bringing them to bear on modern debates. His particular focus is on retrieving the "book of nature primarily for use in defending the faith" (4). He argues ultimately that we should use the book of nature in conjunction with the book of Scripture to follow the example of our Reformed fathers in the task of defending the faith. Even those who disagree with Fesko will have to reckon seriously with his careful and wide-reaching historical and biblical analysis.

Fesko develops his subject clearly and well. In eight chapters he takes readers through the light of nature, common notions, John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, the concept of Christian worldview, transcendental arguments, dualisms, and the book of nature as it comes to bear on apologetics. From the perspectives of systematic and historical theology, Fesko seeks to recover a classical Reformed approach to defending the faith, with a special emphasis on the use of natural theology in apologetics (xii). He devotes particular attention to the idealist background and historical context of the thought of Herman Dooyeweerd and Cornelius Van Til, offering both appreciation and critique along the way. One great strength of Fesko's research is that while he appeals to specific authors to guide his narrative, he does not rely on them exclusively. He draws from a vast amount of contemporary authors to show clear trajectories, and diversity, among the theologians he cites. This makes his conclusions more solid and satisfying, especially with regard to the teaching of classic Reformed orthodoxy. Another useful, though likely controversial, aspect of this book is that the author not only places Reformed authors in context, but he evaluates Van Til and others in context as well. He shows ably why older Reformed authors accepted the idea of common notions in fallen people by virtue of the remnants of the image of God in them as well as why later post-Enlightenment authors rejected these ideas. Appropriately, he closes his book with an exhortation to humility and Christ-likeness in our apologetic endeavors (215-218).

Fesko's treatment of Thomas Aquinas is particularly illuminating. Most Reformed historical theologians and systematicians do not have first hand knowledge of Aquinas's writings. Fesko remedies this to a large extent by bringing Aquinas into conversation both with Reformed historical theology and contemporary apologetics. While critiquing Van Til's reading of Aquinas as overly dependent on secondary literature, he argues that "Van Til and Aquinas have more in common than most assume" (72). Both rested on the foundation of Scripture and of faith seeking understanding (95). Both also used the language and categories of the philosophy of their times. The fact that Thomas wrote his Summa as a guide to understand Scripture, which he augmented with his biblical lectures, corroborates this idea beyond the evidence Fesko provides. Calvin later followed a similar method. Agree or disagree with Fesko, understanding Aquinas on his own terms and in his own context is an important piece of our Catholic Christian legacy that must enter into such discussions.

This book has been well-anticipated and I have rarely seen a book gain more attention prior to its publication. It is a good model of how to present historical ideas in their contexts and to bring them into conversation with contemporary issues without sacrificing proper historical method. Fesko's research may prove earth-shattering to some and at least earth-quaking to others. His arguments from primary sources are compelling and they ring true with this reviewer's own research in classic Reformed authors as well as Thomas Aquinas. Whether or not one fully agrees with the author's conclusions about apologetics, readers of every persuasion cannot afford to pass it by as they grapple with the implications of Reformed theology for defending the faith.

Ryan M. McGraw

Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

 

Van Mastricht on the Scholastics

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While reading through Petrus Van Mastrichts' Theoretical-Practical Theology, I was intrigued to find his thoughts concerning scholastic theology. In his section on "the Nature of Theology," Van Mastricht wrote:

"It is asked, must theology be taught according to a certain method? As an example of excess, the Scholastics, according to their philosophical theology, loved the philosophical methods of Aristotle--whether it was his analytic or synthetic method--to the point of distraction."1

A little further on, he explained:

"Someone may ask what we should think about scholastic theology, which is a middle way between natural and revealed theology in as much as it teaches revealed things by nature method and arguments. By 'scholastic theology' we do not understand here revealed theology as it is taught in the familiar manner of the schools--which is the sense our Alstead meant when he published his scholastic theology--but rather that philosophical theology that is held in the schools of the papists in order to sustain their doctrine of transubstantiation and other sorts of superstitions. This philosophical theology was born under Lanfranc of Pavia, while he was contending with Berengar over transubstantiation. At that dispute, at every point, Lanfranc lacked the authority of both Augustine and Scripture, in so far as nothing in Augustine or Scripture presents itself in favor of transubstantiation. At least, at that time this philosophical theology was more modest, but afterward, when quite dreadful philosophical terms were contrived, gradually it became more impudent, all the way up to Peter Lombard in his Four Books of Sentences, and from there to Albert the Great and his disciples Thomas Aquinas. By Aquinas, without any shame, not only were those quite dreadful philosophical terms augmented to an enormous extent, but also, disregarding the Scriptures, the heads of the faith began to be demonstrated by philosophical reasons, and even Aristotle, Averroes, and others began to be considered equal to the Scriptures, if not preferred over them. Concerning this kind of scholastic theology, it is now asked, 'what should we think?'"2

Van Mastricht then proceeded to give a series of confirming arguments, by which he asserted the following:

"Since the papists generally find nothing in the Scriptures to reinforce their positions on transubstantiation, the absolute rule of the pope, their own satisfactions and merits, and all other kinds of papal doctrines, they commonly flee to philosophical subtleties and go to the thickets of quite dreadful terms. The Reformed generally think, for the reasons already noted, that the aforementioned type of scholastic theology ought to be rigidly proscribed, and in substance agree with the more discriminating of the papists, such as Desiderius, Erasmus, Melchior Canus, Denis, Petau, and others. Nevertheless, there are among the Reformed those who think we should take the middle way, that scholastic theology ought to be neither entirely preserved nor entirely eliminated, but that it ought to be purged of its blemishes, and only then can it be preserved."3

Finally, he sought to explain in what sense scholastic theology is useful when he noted:

"Scholastic theology is useful 1) in controversies with the papists, since you cannot engage very soundly and fruitfully with them if you are unfamiliar with their style, tricks and thickets; 2) in refuting pagans and atheists; 3) in building up souls concerning revealed truth itself; and, especially 4) in those questions that border on theology on one side and philosophy on the other."4

This, it seems to me, is a thoughtful analysis of the weaknesses and strengths of scholastic theology--an analysis that seems to be largely missing from discussions about it in our day.


1. Petrus Van MasctrichtTheoretical-Practical Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018) p. 70

2. Ibid., p. 85

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., p. 86

Aquinas Reconsidered (Part 3)

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It is in Oliphint's final critique of Aquinas' views on natural reason and philosophy in their relation to theology that the source of his misreading of Aquinas becomes clear. The assumption that Aquinas, given his attachment to Aristotle, attempted to merge two antithetical principia comes from Cornelius Van Til. In addition, the assumption that Aquinas' Aristotelianism stood in the way of a resolution of the question of essence and existence "so central to Thomas's metaphysical system" also comes from Van Til (pp. 51-53, 88-89), even as Oliphint identifies the writings of Van Til as "the best overall assessment and critique of Thomism" (p. 139). Oliphint summarizes Van Til as arguing that "reason, apart from grace, can deal only with essences and not with existence," and then cites Van Til as viewing Aquinas' purported attempt to move from "the language of essences into that of existences" as rendered impossible "without suppressing reason" (p. 51). Van Til concludes the impossibility of merging pagan Aristotle and Christian theology--as if this is what Aquinas were doing--and, on the mistaken assumption that Aristotelian philosophy is a philosophy of "abstract essences," posits the further impossibility of a "transposition from the realm of abstract essences to that of existence."1

The rather natural question that arises is where do Van Til and Oliphint find the claim that reason, apart from grace, can only deal with essences and not with existence? It certainly is not a legitimate inference from Aquinas' thought. It also would be, at best, rather difficult to work through Aristotle's treatises on physics, the categories, generation, and the history of animals and conclude that, for Aristotle, reason does not deal with existence but only with essences. The basis for Van Til's and Oliphint's view is probably an assimilation of Aristotle to Plato, who assumed it is the idea, namely the form or essence, that is the proper object of knowledge. But Aristotle, unlike Plato, did not allow that ideas or essences can be separate from substantial existence.2 Aristotle's view does yield the conclusion that the knowledge of things consists in their definition, the definition being the idea or essence that applies to a class of existents, which in turn leads to a the question of how one has knowledge of particulars or individuals--a rather different issue than that claimed by Van Til. There is, moreover, a considerable scholarly literature that discusses the issue and that concludes that Aristotle's philosophy does deal with the knowledge of particulars.

The Van Tilian claim is also demonstrably wrong in the case of Aquinas. Copleston notes, rather pointedly, that it is "not true to say that the intellect, according to St. Thomas, has no knowledge of corporeal particulars." As Copleston continues, this primary object of the intellect is not the abstracted universal "as such" but the universal as abstracted from the particular.4 Aquinas rests this view, moreover, on a distinction between sensory and intellective knowing. The primary object of the intellect is the form or universal that has been abstracted from the particular, with the particular external object being known by the intellect indirectly, by means of the abstracted universal--but also with the external object being directly and concretely known to sense.5

These considerations not only of Van Til's misconceptions but specifically of what Aristotle and Aquinas understood concerning knowledge of essences and of things or particulars, brings us back to the impact of Exodus 3:14 on metaphysics and, accordingly, on the framing of a Christian philosophy. Aquinas' approach, in focusing on the identity of the First Mover as "He who is," the existent One, opens up a philosophy that can argue creation ex nihilo and a doctrine of providence, specifically on the ground that the One in whom there is no real distinction between essence and existence can know the essences of potential things and confer existence.

In order to deny this reading of Aquinas, Van Til even goes so far as to bifurcate Aquinas into a philosopher and a theologian attempting to the synthesize unsynthesizables--Aristotle's pure essence that does not create and the biblical God, the One who is, who does create.6 But, as indicated above, even taking McInerny's approach to the preambles as correct, the proofs in the Summa theologiae remain the philosophical arguments of a Christian. The proofs, moreover, do not attempt, as Oliphint and Van Til claim, to simply merge an Aristotelian absolute Thought with the God of creation: on the contrary, they draw on Aristotelian views of causality and motion but argue in a non-Aristotelian manner to a divine first cause who, as necessary Being, creates a contingent order out of nothing. In other words, Aquinas draws together the truths concerning causality and a First Mover known to Aristotle, highly useful in demonstrating that the existence of God can be known to reason, and truths of the biblical revelation concerning God--on the ground that rational and revealed truths, as true, cannot disagree.

Van Til's claim of impossibility rests on his own presuppositions cast over Aristotelian thought and Aquinas' arguments: after assuming a radical antithesis, worthy of a Harnackian, between Greek philosophy and biblical revelation, Van Til imposes his own conclusion on the direction that any Aristotelian argumentation must take and then reads his conclusion concerning Aristotelian thought into his reading of Aquinas--without acknowledging that neither Aquinas nor, in fact, the Christian tradition from the second century onward, including Reformed orthodoxy and the Westminster Confession of Faith, shared his presuppositions about the character and use of natural reason.

There are, in sum, several fundamental problems with Oliphint's work on Aquinas that stand in the way of the book serving a useful purpose. The first of these problems is simply that Oliphint's argumentation evidences major misreadings and misunderstandings of the thought of Thomas Aquinas on such issues as the relation of reason and revelation, the noetic effects of sin, the praeambula fidei, the analogia entis, the nature and character of the proofs of the existence of God, and the relation of the doctrine of divine simplicity to the doctrine of the Trinity. The second, related problem is that his argumentation rests largely on the thought of Cornelius Van Til, who by no stretch of the imagination can be viewed as a competent analyst of the thought of Aquinas. The end-result of their readings is a mangled interpretation of Aquinas that impedes genuine access to his thought and actually stands in the way of legitimate interpretation. Third, inasmuch as the Westminster Confession of Faith and Reformed Orthodoxy in general are largely in agreement with Aquinas on issues of epistemology, natural theology, doctrine of God, and, indeed, apologetics, Oliphint's and Van Til's views at best stand at the margin of what can be called Reformed and, at worst, create a kind of sectarian theology and philosophy that is out of accord with the older Reformed tradition and its confessions.

1. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., ed. K. Scott Oliphint (Philippsburg: P&R, 2008), p. 155; cited in Oliphint, Aquinas, p. 51.

2. Cf. e.g., Aristotle, Metaphysics, I.9, 991b, 1-9; with ibid., VII.5-6, 1031a, 1-19.

3. E.g., Harold F. Cherniss, Aristotle's Criticism of Plato and the Academy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1944), pp. 221 n131, 236-239; Walter Leszl, "Knowledge of the Universal and Knowledge of the Particular in Aristotle," in Review of Metaphysics, 26/2 (1972), pp. 278-313; Joseph Owens, The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics: A Study in the Greek Background of Medieval Thought, 3rd ed. (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1978), pp. 426-432; Robert Heinaman, "Knowledge of Substance in Aristotle," in Journal of Hellenic Studies, 101 (1981), pp. 63-77.

4. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 9 vols. (Westminster, MD.: Newman Press, 1946-1974), II, p. 391, citing Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia, q.86, a.1; cf. Joseph Owens, "Aquinas on Knowing Existence," in St. Thomas Aquinas on the Existence of God: The Collected Papers of Joseph Owens, ed. John R. Cattan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980), pp. 23-26, 29, etc.

5. Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia, q.86, a.1, ad 4.

6. Van Til, Defense of the Faith, p. 156.

7. A more detailed essay-review of Oliphint's work is forthcoming in Calvin Theological Journal.


Richard A. Muller
Senior Fellow, Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research
P. J. Zondervan Professor of Historical Theology, Emeritus
Calvin Theological Seminary


*This is the third and final installement of Dr. Muller's review of Dr. Oliphint's book on Aquinas. You can find the previous posts in this series here

Several readers have asked if Dr. Oliphint will be giving a response to this review of his work. Prior to posting these three articles, I emailed Dr. Oliphint to let him know that we were publishing a review of his book which was critical in important respects. In that same email I told him that we would welcome and consider any response he produced. Up to this point, he has chosen not to respond. -- Jonathan Master

Aquinas Reconsidered (Part 2)

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Oliphint's discussion of Aquinas' view of God draws heavily on the claims of Cornelius Van Til, one of whose basic points of critique is that Aquinas' "idea of the analogy of being compromises the biblical doctrine of creation."1 In Van Til's view,  the notion of an analogy of being comes directly from Aristotle and reduces the distinction between the Creator and the creature by adopting the Greek philosophical assumption that "all being is essentially one" and that "all individual beings are being to the extent that they participate in this one ultimate being."2 What Van Til missed is that if Aquinas assumed "all being" is "essentially one," he would have had no need for analogy and simply identified the same attributes in God and in human beings as predicated univocally. But since Aquinas clearly affirms the Creator-creature distinction, resting on creation ex nihilo, he argued for non-univocal, namely analogical predication. Failure to understand the connection between Aquinas' understanding of analogy and his doctrine of creation is also characteristic of Oliphint's critique.

Oliphint also makes several crucial mistakes in his interpretation of Aquinas' proofs of the existence of God. He dismisses Aquinas' use of Exodus 3:14 as insufficient to show the Christian context in which the proofs are deployed on the rather slim ground that, had Aquinas really intended to be biblical, he would not simply have cited the verse he would have "shown how the content of revelation grounded his arguments" instead of proceeding by "natural reason."3 But citation of texts, presumably interpreted exegetically elsewhere, is a common practice, and this understanding of Exodus 3:14, rooted in Augustine, was a commonplace--not, by the way, available to "natural reason."

Nor is the citation of Exodus 3:14 the only indication of a theological and biblical backdrop to the proofs: in the first article, on whether the existence of God is self evident, Aquinas bases his argument with an objection drawn from John of Damascus' De fide orthodoxa and John 14:6--and then counters the objections with a point from Aristotle's Metaphysics interpreted by way of a reference to Psalm 52:1. In the second article, whether it can be demonstrated that God exists, draws objections from Hebrews 11:1 and from John of Damascus, countering them with a citation of Romans 1:20. Then, when Aquinas poses the question leading to the proofs of whether God exists, he offers no references in his objections and counters them with Exodus 3:14. The process of argument is on the basis of reason, but the argument with the objectors is an argument among Christians.

The second mistake is also categorical one: it concerns the issue of precisely what Aquinas thought he was proving. Oliphint represents Cajetan as teaching that the "proofs only demonstrated properties that could apply to a god, but not to God himself," (p. 90, n77) but what Cajetan actually held was that the proofs do not demonstrate the existence of God "per se" but "quasi per accidens," his point being that the proofs establish properties that, as Aquinas himself put it, "everyone understands to be God."4 These are not merely possible properties of "a god"--they are the presumed properties of the one and only God.

Another mistake concerns Oliphint's reading of Aquinas' cosmological proof. Oliphint draws on Stephen Davis to argue that "for any version of the cosmological argument to work, the conclusion must presuppose some aspect of temporal causality" and concludes that since Aquinas' does not place God into a temporal sequence, Aquinas' proof fails (p. 81). Aquinas, however, assumed creation ex nihilo and that there is no time, finite or infinite, before the moment of creation.  Aquinas' view of the impossibility of an infinite sequence of causes, therefore, does not rely on temporal sequence but follows precisely what Davis assumed might produce a valid argument, namely, an essential or ontological sequence of the hierarchy of causes in which contingent being (even if it were in an infinite temporal sequence) is not sufficient to explain its own existence.5 Indeed, contra Oliphint, Davis concludes that Aquinas rightly recognized that "No hierarchical causal series can regress infinitely; it must have a beginning."6

One particular aspect of Aquinas' approach to the traditional notion of divine simplicity comes to the fore in Oliphint's discussion, namely, the relationship between simplicity and the doctrine of the Trinity. His discussion is focused on a distinction between esse and id quod est. Oliphint has the correct translation of id quod est as "that which is," but his definition is wrong: "that which is" does not mean "essence or nature" (pp. 105, 130). Aquinas uses the Boethian esse-id quod est distinction to indicate the same issue as his own essence-existence distinction, which points directly toward Aquinas' stress on God as "He who is" (Exodus 3:14).

Oliphint's Van Tilian critique not only ignores what Aquinas actually argues, it is also quite untenable, whether from a historical, theological, or philosophical perspective. Thus, Oliphint:

If we begin with biblical revelation, however (something that Thomas's natural theology cannot do) we can begin with, instead of the categories of esse and id quod est, the one essence of God as three hypostases, or subsistences. In other words, we can begin, contrary to Aquinas, with the ontological Trinity. With these biblical categories in view, we are able to affirm both that God's essence is who he is and that there is no possibility that he could be otherwise, and that each of the three subsistences can and does act as that one essence (p. 109).

Pace Oliphint, distinction between essentia and subsistentia is not directly given in biblical revelation. It took the church more than three centuries after the close of the canon to arrive at this terminological solution to the problem of divine triunity. Aquinas, moreover, both confesses the doctrine and meditates at length on the issue of one essence in three subistences or hypostases. It is not clear why the post-biblical distinction between essence and subsistence, as used to explain the biblical issue that God is One and is also Father, Son, and Spirit, is any more "biblical" than the distinction between esse and id quod est, as used to explain the biblical point that God is Who He is.

Even with the post-biblical trinitarian language in view, we are quite unable to make clear "that God's essence is who he is and that there is no possibility that he could be otherwise." A series of qualifications of the term essence must be added, including the point that in God there is no real distinction between essence and existence, a point, as Aquinas indicated, that can be gathered from Exodus 3:14. Just setting forth the trinitarian formula of one essence and three hypostases does not satisfy the requirement for affirming, in Oliphint's words, "that each of the three subsistences can and does act as that one essence." Indeed, just to say that each of the three subsistences "can and does act" as one essence itself is a problematic usage that verges on tritheism: the issue of the trinitarian formula is that the three subsistences are the one essence. In order to complete the doctrine and clearly affirm that the three subsistences are the essence in such a way as not to imply composition, the doctrine of simplicity also needs to be present.   And it is present in Aquinas' theology, and was present in the major patristic and Reformed orthodox formulations concerning the Trinity.

All of these aspects of Oliphint's argument are problematic, but they do not quite rise to the level of the underlying problem, namely, that Oliphint confuses epistemology with ontology. Both Aquinas and the Reformed orthodox writers begin with prolegomenal discussions in which Scripture is set forth as the primary authority in doctrinal matters--so that both actually do begin biblically. Neither Aquinas nor the Reformed orthodox begin with the "ontological Trinity" because both recognize that the proper beginning point of knowledge (as distinct but not separate from faith) cannot be a point of doctrine like the Trinity that is neither self-evident nor demonstrable. Oliphint has confused the principium essendi with the principium cognoscendi, and has failed to recognize that cognitive principia, more generally understood, are self-evident, incontestable notions, some directly available to reason, some given by revelation.

To be continued in part 3...


1. Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Nutley: P&R, 1969), p. 160; cf. idem, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (S.l.: Den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1969), p. 60.

2. Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. 60; idem, Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 160.

3. Oliphint, Aquinas, pp. 60-61, referencing McInerny's reading of the preambles; cf. ibid., pp. 27, 51.

4. Aquinas, Summa theologiae, Ia, q.2, a.3, corpus.

5. Cf. Matthew Levering, Proofs of God: Classical Arguments from Tertullian to Barth (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), p. 66, especially note 165.

6. Stephen T. Davis, God, Reason and Theistic Proofs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), p. 73.


*This is the second post in a short series by Dr. Muller