Results tagged “Reason” from Reformation21 Blog

How One Book Changed My Life (Part 2)

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In addition to modeling and teaching submission to the Word of God, Petrus van Mastricht--in the recently translated prolegomena of his Theoretical-Practical Theology--powerfully corrected my thinking on the relation of reason and theology.

Reason is incorporated into theology.

First and foremost, Mastricht taught me that reason is welcome in theology. He taught it by his example--his admirable order and logic, his careful distinctions, his steadfast refusal to reason in a circle (135, 160, 170, 173) or to presuppose anything not self-evident or proven elsewhere (81, 88, 99, 182), and his free use of arguments from nature and reason (68, 73-74, 117-119, etc.).

He taught it indirectly, in his explaining various points: for example, that the student of theology should master, in addition to biblical studies, the liberal arts, including languages, philosophy, and history (94). Or that natural theology, though limited, is real, that many true facts about the true God can be truly known by nature, the senses, and reason (77-78, 82-83). Or, moreover, that the truth and authority of Scripture can and should be confirmed by reason (131-137).

He also taught it directly, when he explained two proper uses of reason in theology. Reason, he said, may be an instrument, the use of which is "necessary in every inquiry of truth, even of that which is occupied with Scripture"; and it may be an argument, "so that the truth derived from Scripture, as from its own first and unique principle, we may also confirm with natural reasons" (155-156).

Mastricht's teaching on this point particularly changed my thinking. I had been laboring under the idea that no theology could be learned anywhere but the Bible. The heavens may declare God's glory (Ps. 19:1), and nature morality (Rom. 1:26), but, I thought, no one can hear the word of nature except through hearing the Word of Scripture. Indeed, in my mind nature was entirely mute without Scripture: the fundamental principle of all knowledge, all predication, all reasoning, was found only in the Word of God.

But Mastricht's vision of faith and reason, I discovered, was much more true and satisfying. In it the Bible is indeed the "perfect rule of living for God" (117), and absolutely necessary in order to know Christ for salvation (129-130), but even so, some truths taught supernaturally in Scripture are also taught naturally in nature (Rom. 1:19-20; 2:14-15). Moreover, God has mercifully preserved the mind of sinful man so that even pagans recognize certain facts about him (Acts 17:28). Thus while Christ is indeed the light of men (John 1:4), even if man's reason does not recognize him as such, it is still able to learn natural truths naturally. And this is especially true outside the domain of theology: as Mastricht argues, though theology is helped by nature, its foundation is Scripture; but the foundation of all other disciplines is "nature and human investigation" (100).

Furthermore, Mastricht instructed me in the way that these truths practically inform our teaching and defending of the faith. Consider, for example, how in his defense of Scripture he appeals to commonly accepted rules of verification to establish the truth and trustworthiness of Scripture (132-133, 148-149, 118-119), and cites objective evidence to prove that the Bible is indeed the Word of God (133-137, 149-151), explaining that the Spirit's internal testimony to the Word is not itself an evidence, but rather the gift of power to see and to believe the evidence (183). Similarly, in next year's forthcoming volume 2, Mastricht masterfully calls heaven and earth, reason and logic to witness against atheism to the existence of God, and in arguing for God's attributes, not only proves them all from Scripture, but confirms them all from nature.

Thus Mastricht not only changed my thinking on an important, even foundational matter in Christian theology, but also changed my practice. Now that my doubts concerning the natural knowledge of God are gone, I find great joy in making use of it. Among other things, in my ministry I am now free in teaching certain doctrines to use natural and rational arguments, both to confirm the godly in the biblical faith, and to leave the wicked without excuse. And in this way I have the privilege to follow not only Mastricht (78, 12), but the apostles (Acts 14:15-17; 17:24-29; Rom. 1:18-20, 26-27), and Christ himself (Matt. 5:45; 6:26-30).

Reason is subordinate in theology.

But in addition to the two proper uses of reason and theology, Mastricht presents a third use that he condemns, that is, reason "as a norm or principle of truth on account of which something is believed" (156). In that way, reason would no longer be the handmaiden of theology (78), but would either join or replace Scripture as its perfect principium. But this cannot be. As Mastricht explains, "Reason is blind (1 Cor. 2:14-15), darkened (John 1:5), deceptive and inconstant (Rom. 1:21ff.), and finally, imperfect (cf. Rom. 1:19 with 1 Cor. 2:12)," "The heads of religion transcend reason because they are mysteries (1 Tim. 3:15; Matt. 13:11; 1 Cor. 2:7; 4:1)," and "Christ, the prophets, and the apostles never refer us back to reason but always to Scripture (Isa. 8:20; 2 Peter 1:19; 2 Tim. 3:14)" (156). This is why Mastricht was a fierce opponent of Cartesianism (xxxv), but also why he at times used strong words against medieval scholastic theology (85), even though throughout his work he shows his debt to it. Though reason is necessary in theology, and there is true natural knowledge, neither can presume to replace Scripture as the perfect rule of living for God.1

So Mastricht taught me not only the goodness and necessity of reason in theology, but also its proper limits. I am hopeful that in the discussion of this important topic, Mastricht's balanced method will prove for many, as it did for me, a wholesome model.

1. On this topic see also the excellent digression in Pontanus's funeral oration for Mastricht, lxxxi-lxxxvii.

*This is the second post in a short series by Michael Spangler


Michael Spangler is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and assists with the editing of Mastricht's Theoretical-Practical Theology. He lives with his wife and children in Greensboro, NC.

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