Friday, March 15, 2019

Just Words - What this book is about




Just Words (104pages), a short introduction to Scripture,  is to be published by EP Books in April. 

 What follows is a sample. Next month, another sample.




In this short book we are to consider one important aspect of the ordinariness with which God visits us. God has done things for us and he says things to us.  Some of the things he does are to attract attention. But not like Presidents may command our attention, by their residence or their motorcade or the eloquence of their speech or the might of their army or the size of their entourage. In making himself known, God does not lose anything of his glory, but in what he does his glory shows through in surprising ways. And when all his redemptive work is done his glory will be manifest to all. Christ will come in great glory, and all his angels with him.

We learn that in God’s dealings with the human race, matter and manner are intertwined, vitally connected. In this study we are considering God’s book, what we call The Holy Bible. It is a book made up of other books, spanning hundreds of years. This shelf of books itself has a character that is at one with God’s coming down. For what God says in his book and how he says it are seamlessly woven together. The Bible tracks what has happened in human history when God came down.

Two elements

What do I mean? Basically, that the Bible is made up of two elements. There is a record of God’s action. And there is a commentary on that action. Act + commentary. When we hear of commentaries, we might think of journalists who take a line on current affairs, or of pundits who make remarks on what is going on during the match. The commentator is in the studio, and he talks about the game. But this is not how it is with the Bible. God is not simply a talker. The power and authenticity of the Bible lies in the fact that it is the record of actions of God together with his own authoritative commentary on those actions. The Bible is not a record of the acts of God with a commentary from some other source.  God is his own commentator. This gives to the  Bible an enduring relevance.

One view used to be that THE Bible is the record of how the people of Israel tried to make sense of the acts of God, developing a religion in doing so.  But that’s to reverse the arrow, I’m afraid. There are events – God coming down - and the human divinely-provided commentators are part of the total event. There is the event itself and then what we may call a God - authorized commentary on that event. The Bible itself does not say this in so many words, but this is what is borne in on us when we start to study it carefully. This needs a word or two of explanation.

If you watch a wordless video with some of your friends, and then discuss what its significance is, you are likely to get various reactions, some of which may be wildly different from others. Why was the man walking down the street into the sunset? Who was he? Where was he? And so on. Words, that is, sentences of various kinds, are needed to deliver intelligibility. That is the job of the commentator.

In the Bible there are various kinds of divine commentary. Some are very direct: the word of the Lord is said to ‘come to’ the prophets. (See for example Jer. 1.2) Others are more reflective. In such commenting there is a kind of dual authorship. In this situation. God acts, and then later – but sometimes before! -  commentators act by speaking. God gives his words to the prophet. Perhaps they come to the prophet in a dream, or in an act of divine authorization. In speaking God does not only ’own’ what he says. More than that, God so orders the details of the human agent’s life that when he speaks, the distinctives of GOD’S his character are evident.  Or if he is a scribe the style of what he has written is like an official document, in which the character of the writer is shielded from us.  Several of the Old Testament books of history, such as I and II Kings, are like that. They might may have been put together by a committee. Paul is not Peter, and it shows. Isaiah is not Jeremiah. Matthew is not Mark. Style and temperament and outlook become manifest. God ‘respects’ the person’s individuality. (After all, he has created and sustains them.) He does not ‘flatten’ their individuality into a sort of monotone. The prophet or apostle is not a puppet or simply one who mouths God’s words like a megaphone. Paul (say) speaks them out, the words bearing the stamp of his personality, his education, his thought-processes, and so on, and. Yet his words are the words of God. Sometimes even the message is given the human agent to deliver is an unwelcome one. He’d rather not say what he is impelled to say.

Through this in-breathing of God the prophet’s words they are not only his words, they are God’s words. What the exact mechanism of this is like is difficult to say, since it is the action of our Creator upon his creation, unlike any human-on-human action. So the idea of ‘dictation’ doesn’t quite do the job of what is going on, not usually. When he wrote his letters Paul was not ‘dictated to’ like in the old days when the boss used to dictate a letter to his secretary. At least, Paul’s letters – or Luke’s narratives - don’t read like that, do they?

Think of the well-known story of the young man Samuel. The Lord called to him during the night, but Samuel was at first convinced that it was the high-priest Eli calling, and went to see what Eli wanted. After this had happened a few times, Eli came to the conclusion that it must be the Lord calling, and told Samuel that if it happened again he should say ‘Speak, Lord, for you servant hears’. And the Lord spoke, and stated that he was to punish Eli’s two worthless sons, priests and yet blasphemers.

Of course the process of bringing the story of Samuel into a history book of the people of Israel is not complete until that book is complete, and that involves another agent, or set of agents, who see to it that this story comes together with other stories of God’s action and commentary, into the form of the book that we know as I Samuel. In fact you may say the process is not fully completed until that book takes its place in the library of books that make up the Bible. But we must not suppose that the agents - prophets and poets and scribes and compilers of sets of proverbs -  have to be conscious of God’s special agency for this to happen. The historians, say,  need only to be conscious, of being historians of Israel. Their role, as distinct from that of the prophet, is more like that of a sub-editor than that of an author. This process is also held to be under the superintendence of God, a rather different process than that of the direct inspiration of a prophet. A scribe works  among the annals of the people, helping to form one of the sacred books such as the histories of the Old Testament, Judges, say, or the book of Esther.

In the case of Paul’s letters, for example, the process was rather different, more informal, more personal, but written with an awareness of his apostleship. ( I Cor.9.1) The letters may be said, in general,  to be comments on the significance of what Jesus Christ did and said and suffered, how his readers should conduct themselves as the people of God, and so on.  The letters are affectionate, personal, profound, and plain-speaking, and seem to have been composed in the ordinary way of writing letters, sometimes with a secretary, and (as far as the text indicates) sometimes not. Yet Paul so thought and wrote or dictated that what he produced was also inspired by God. 

Friday, February 01, 2019

Review of Oliphint's book on Aquinas - III




The final instalment of the review of  Oliphint"s new book on Aquinas.The entire review is published in the Journal of IRBS Theological Seminary (2018): 163-93. It may be purchased at www.rbap.net.

Chapter 2 Foundation of Knowledge

So now we look to Scott Oliphint’s more detailed treatment of the Five Ways in his Chapter 2, ’Foundation of Knowledge,’ which consists of four expository sections and a fifth of critique. We shall see that the discussion of this and the next chapter assumes Aquinas propounds a set of foundational principles on which Christian faith is erected. It is intended to reinforce what Oliphint takes to be the errors of Aquinas’s two foundations which the author has identified, one of knowledge, the other of metaphysics.
So what Oliphint’s two main chapters of comment on Aquinas boil down to is criticism of the Five Ways in ST 1a 2.2, from the point of view of his understanding of Christian apologetics. There is first a discussion of Reason and Revelation. Here the author is in the area that we have concentrated on, natural theology and its relation to the supernatural theology of ‘Articles of Faith.’ Oliphint says that reason is the foundation and revealed theology the superstructure (13). As we have already noted this seems odd, for in ST 1.1 Thomas is already at home in referring to revealed theology before he attends to natural theology. Why else is Scripture, e.g. Romans 1:19 and John 1:9, cited as authoritative?
We have seen earlier that the articles of faith form a distinct science. Here is a passage that supports this from a writing earlier than the ST.

First of all I wish to warn you that in disputations with unbelievers about articles of the Faith, you should not try to prove the Faith by necessary reasons. This would belittle the sublimity of the Faith, whose truth exceeds not only human minds but also those of angels; we believe in them only because they are revealed by God. Yet whatever come from the Supreme Truth cannot be false, and what is not false cannot be repudiated by any necessary reason. Just as our Faith cannot be proved by necessary reasons, because it exceeds the human mind, so because of its truth it cannot be refuted by any necessary reason. So any Christian disputing about the articles of the Faith should not try to prove the Faith, but defend the Faith. Thus blessed Peter (1 Pet 3:15) did not say: ‘Always have your proof’, but ‘your answer ready,’ so that reason can show that what the Catholic Faith holds is not false.[1]

The point being made is that articles of faith cannot be defended by reason since they are above reason. Nevertheless, articles of faith cannot be false, being from God, and so are not falsifiable by reason, but may be defended, as recommended in 1 Peter 3:15. This is a clear claim that articles of faith are quite distinct from demonstrative proofs, and that Aquinas was not a foundationalist. Certainly he did not hold that Christian theology was built on the foundation of natural theology.
At this stage Oliphint cites Thomas’s commitment to a three-fold knowledge of God from another text than the ST. First, by his effects; secondly, knowledge of God through the operation of reason; and thirdly, knowledge imparted through infused supernatural light (14). But the author spends no time in showing how this diversity in the sources and kinds of knowledge can be the fruits of the foundation that Aquinas allegedly provides. Writing of this three-fold knowledge Oliphint holds that the third class in which God is known in himself ‘garners little or no respect in Thomas’s system’ (16). In other words, in Oliphint’s view, Thomas’s system is one in which reason and not revelation is dominant. But is that so?
Here we come upon one of the most puzzling features of Thomas’s method, according to Oliphint. Thomas exegetes Scripture. He is a Christian theologian, even though he is a bad exegete, in Oliphint’s eyes (121). But the glaring puzzle is how Aquinas can legitimately have this role if he is (as he is at this stage according to Oliphint) principally a natural theologian expounding the Five Ways as an Aristotelian, appealing to “’pure nature’ as a foundation for the grace of redemption” (32, n. 40). Is this not to put the cart before the horse? This shows that Oliphint muddles up the role of the philosopher engaging in scientia, according to Aquinas, with that of the Christian theologian engaging in expounding the articles of the Christian faith, another form of scientia.
Incidentally, Paul’s assertion in Romans 1:20 seems more positive according to Aquinas than Oliphint allows it to be; it provides an account of part of what the Reformed later referred to as the sensus divinitatis. This discussion of self-evidence is concerned with the notion as it is employed in the proofs, demonstrations that God exists. But what does Oliphint have to say about such qualifications of Aquinas as “However, there is nothing to stop a man accepting on faith some truth which he personally cannot demonstrate, even if that truth in itself is such that demonstration could make it evident” (ST 1a 2. 2)? This seems a significant qualification to the value Aquinas places on the proofs in Christian belief, but Oliphint ignores it. I think their acknowledgement would significantly undermine his critique of Thomas.
Early in Chapter 2 there is a section on the praeambula fidei (25). What are they for? Are they primarily theological or philosophical? We have stressed that in the ST there is a separateness between them in that faith in the articles of faith can occur without requiring philosophical demonstration. As understood philosophically they may be said to ratify the character of God in revelation in which God is not knowable in himself, but as he is to us—his effects in special revelation. So, there is an overlap between the two, but the praeambula do not justify Christian faith. Aquinas says:

The truths about God which St. Paul says we can know by our natural powers of reasoning—that God exists, for example—are not numbered among the articles of faith but are presupposed (praeambula) to them. For faith presupposes natural knowledge, just as grace does nature and all perfections that which they perfect. However, there is nothing to stop a man accepting on faith some truth which he personally cannot demonstrate, even if that truth in itself is such that demonstration could make it evident. (ST 1a. 2.2)

Oliphint seems to favor Ralph McInerny’s view of the separateness of philosophy from theology and thinks that this shows that for Thomas the discipline of apologetics (which naturally Oliphint is interested in) “is rooted in the principium of human reason, which, of itself, according to Thomas, is able to produce, by way of demonstration, a true theology” (29). But this seems to be an unwarranted conclusion if ‘a true theology’ covers all the ground covered by ‘the articles of the Christian faith.’ Theology of the articles in this sense, Thomas would say, is a product of the authority of the Church’s preaching via the canonical Scriptures. Philosophy may clarify them, as Aquinas notes, citing Paul’s adducing “the resurrection of Christ to prove the resurrection of all” (ST 1a 1.8).

Chapter 3 Foundation of Existence

The foundationalist emphasis is continued in this chapter which is concerned with what Oliphint thinks are the metaphysical foundations of Aquinas’s thought. We see now that he omits discussion of Aquinas’s distinction between a proposition which is self-evident in itself and one which is made self-evident to us (ST 1a 2.1). This is the role of natural theology, a discipline which not all may be versed in.
Oliphint runs cursorily through who God is, and God’s simplicity. He makes a series of stray comments, discussing the topics of the relation of existence and essence, and of analogy. Thomas concludes “God’s effects, therefore, can serve to demonstrate that God exists, even though they cannot help us to know him comprehensively for what he is” (ST 1a 2.2). That is, we cannot know God in himself. The distinction between that God exists, and what he is that exists, is of some importance.
In his discussion of the proofs Aquinas moves on to the importance of God’s simplicity, an essentially negative notion. The cosmological arguments of the Five Ways are efforts at proving God’s existence from his effects, indirectly. It is good to see that Oliphint affirms divine simplicity (90), but the longish discussion of it from Alvin’s Plantinga’s skepticism of divine simplicity to Eleonore Stump’s affirmation of a version of it to Brian Leftow’s skepticism of it once again, does not take us very much farther. In terms of the brevity of the book, when so many of the strands of Aquinas’s treatment of divine scientia are ignored, this long discussion (91-109) seems excessive.
All five proofs seem to be variants of cosmological arguments, deductions based on the observations of obvious features of experience, in which that there is a God is demonstrated. This is very Aristotelian, most obviously so in Thomas’s version of them in his earlier Summa Contra Gentiles.[2] Some commentators think the fifth way is an early form of the argument from design made famous by William Paley in the eighteenth century. Oliphint does not venture to give any opinion of the validity of any of these arguments. From being products of philosophy, and so a case of scientia, in Oliphint’s view, these have become foundational instances of the operation of ‘neutral rationality – natural reason’ (85, neutral is a term that is unexplained) and so a seriously mistaken apologetic strategy. And Aquinas’s alleged mistakes in exegesis compound his errors in Oliphint’s eyes. And as such he is open to critique by Oliphint’s ‘revelational epistemology’ (121). But to offer these as the Reformed critique of Thomas’s epistemology simply underlie his lack of sympathy with Thomas.
Oliphint’s strategy becomes clear. He is not intent on discussing the validity of Thomas’s arguments for God’s existence, nor in their historical setting. What interests him is Thomas’s foundationalism, the way in which he allegedly builds grace upon nature, and his reliance upon natural reason to achieve this. In this way he fattens Thomas Aquinas for Van Til’s market, for Van Til was dead set against any such apologetic.

Oliphint’s Conclusion

In his Conclusion Olphint underlines even more clearly why he has chosen such an idiosyncratic approach to Aquinas, one that is completely ahistorical. He seems to fault Aquinas because he did not anticipate Hume and Kant. This among his ‘confusions’! All this is to present him as a foil for his view of Van Tillian apologetics. So his anachronistic account of the Five Ways has become that of a classical foundationalist rationalism of the Enlightenment. His references to contemporary debates on philosophy and theology in Aquinas is to adopt the approach of Ralph McInerny’s view that in the proofs Aquinas is behaving as a philosopher, and not, as with such as Etienne Gilson, that the proofs are theological in character. And therefore, he implies that Aquinas relies on pagans and Muslims. So much the worse for Aquinas’s bad philosophy.
He repeats what he has said throughout the book that, according to Thomas, natural theology must have a sole foundation in special revelation. This is one reason why he pays such attention to Aquinas’s exegetical mistakes, if they are that. And while he pays attention to Aquinas’s work as a Bible commentator this is to show what he regards as more of his shortcomings: Aquinas in his view paid attention to “Aristotle and his Muslim followers” (50). He “was no exegete” of Scripture (121). Oliphint’s outlook does not encompass the more generous view of a number of contemporary scholars that Aquinas’s work as a biblical commentator is of considerable value.
There are additional oddities, as when he ascribes Thomas as a forerunner of Molinism, “an Arminian approach to divine sovereignty” (125), passing by the fact that opposition to Molinism in the Roman church was largely in the hands of Dominicans. (He never lets on that Thomas was an Augustinian theologian.) The Molinists’ libertarianism is more likely due to the influence of Duns Scotus on Molina, or perhaps that of the Franciscan Jean Olivi (1248-1298), but almost certainly not Aquinas.

Concluding Thoughts

This book is a great disappointment and represents a lost opportunity. Too often Oliphint’s low opinion of Thomas Aquinas is only too clear. So if his price for the use of Aquinas for the purposes of furthering his own views on apologetics is the distortion of Thomas’s views, is this not too high a price to pay? His manipulation of Thomas’s ideas in the interest of a neo-Calvinist apologetic is unscholarly. Maybe it is of doubtful morality too.
There are two things that will endure: first, treating Aquinas un-historically as an evidential foundationalist, while yet recognizing Thomas’s dependence on Scripture in carrying out his program and, second, treating the Five Ways as apologetics in the modern evangelical sense. The contribution of Aquinas is then seen exclusively as the author or publicizer of the Five Ways, handing them on as gifts to the culture of apologetics down the centuries, and so a target for critique in the light of current apologetics in the twenty-first century. It is in this guise that Oliphint treats and critiques them. The author’s selection of Thomas’s writing material is skewed by his own, quite different, apologetic convictions. His interpretation of Thomas is likewise skewed. His account of Aquinas would have been much more faithful and useful had he given attention to Thomas’s stress on the Christian character of Part 1 Question 1 of the ST, and the place of philosophical argument within it. He would then have seen that Aquinas’s Five Ways do not easily migrate to become a paradigm for modern evidentialist apologetics, and he would not have been cast in the role of an opponent of other styles of apologetics.
Overall, Oliphint’s treatment of Aquinas as a Great Thinker is a disappointment because the shape of his book intends the reader to see how his writing is an obvious case for adhering to the apologetics of Cornelius Van Til. And this is the case at whatever cost to what Aquinas’s writings actually tell us. Had he taken Aquinas’s general, positive influence on Reformed Orthodoxy and beyond, for example, the book could have been an altogether more positive and instructive study for his likely readership.






[1] Reasons for the Faith Against Muslim Objections, 1264 (trans. Joseph Kenny) Ch.2. Chapter 2: How to argue with unbelievers, Opuscula theologia, ed Marietti.
[2] The Summa Contra Gentiles (1259-1265), to which Oliphint occasionally refers, was the earlier and more apologetic of the two Summae of Aquinas.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Review of Oliphint's Aquinas - II



Thomas Aquinas


The second instalment of the review of  Oliphint's new book on Aquinas.The entire review is published in the Journal of IRBS Theological Seminary (2018): 163-93. It may be purchased at www.rbap.net. The last instalment next month, dv.


Oliphint’s Chapters

In his Introduction (Chapter 1) the author outlines his ahistorical approach to Thomas (2-3) and sketches his life and achievements. The titles of the two central chapters, ‘Foundation of Knowledge’ and ‘Foundation of Existence,’ give the game away. Oliphint pursues the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment foundationalist theme first by extracting the Five Ways from Thomas’s context in the ST and other writings, and then by treating them as free-standing ‘cosmological arguments.’ They are seen as functioning as the foundation of both Thomas’s metaphysics and of his epistemology, and hence of his Christian theology.
Oliphint does not attempt to explain to his readers any of the context of the proofs of the existence of God in the ST that we have been reminding ourselves of. Rather he treats the Five Ways as if they were Aquinas’s sole foundation of theology, and so as providing the sole foundation of the rationality of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. Rather inconsistently, however, he does take advantage of Aquinas’s appeal to the Scriptures in his treatment of natural theology, the biblical warrant of such rational theology (which he takes to be disclosed particularly in John 1, Romans 1, Acts 17 and so on) and his exegetical errors in understanding these passages. He does not stop to ask by what authority these passages have the distinctive role they possess. Why does it matter to Aquinas, a philosopher as Oliphint treats him, what Paul or John or Luke thought? By the way, he does not reckon much to Thomas’s expository skills: ‘He was no exegete’ (121).
When dealing with the First Way, Oliphint notes that Exodus 3:14 is mentioned in the preface to their discussion (ST 1a 2,3). Does this change things? He comments:

The quotation from Exodus is in no way meant to impinge on the purely philosophical process in which Aquinas, following Aristotle, engages in this proof. It is not sufficient simply to quote a Bible verse; Thomas should have argued and shown how the content of revelation grounded his arguments. Instead, he bases them in natural reason . . . (61)

The reader gets here a glimpse of Oliphint’s view that in proving God’s existence Aquinas’s thinking ought to have been more biblical, not merely philosophical, or perhaps not even philosophical at all, but revelational. But Aquinas is in fact just that: ‘more biblical’ in that he pays attention to what Luke reported (Acts 17), and Paul (Romans 1), and John (John 1). Oliphint is strangely blind to the significance of the fact that before Aquinas’s Five Ways are set forth, God is discussed from authoritative Scripture.
The fact that Oliphint follows philosophers since Thomas who have treated the Five Ways in abstraction from what Thomas has to say about Christian theology is a puzzle. Why does he do this? My answer is that Oliphint sees the Five Ways through the eyes of the business of apologetics as it has developed in the Enlightenment and beyond. Yet I think it is fair to say that nowhere in his treatment of the proofs of the existence of God does Aquinas hint at such apologetics. Oliphint’s ahistorical approach extends to apologetics, which also has a history.
Thomas is undoubtedly interested in the fact that the doctrine of God as revealed can also be demonstrated (scientia). In this he moves from revealed theology to natural theology, except that, there being only one God, the concept of God argued for in the proofs is in fact the God of revealed theology. So as we have already seen, the two are exercises of scientia, of revealed theology as based on Scripture, and of natural theology based on ‘natural reason.’ These two projects are complementary, side by side, not linear, the one being the exclusive foundation of the other. In his natural theology, Aquinas is engaged in promoting theology, this time, the doctrine of God, not systematic Christian theology as a whole, as capable of being established in demonstrative ways. This would point to the Five Ways being a philosophical, demonstrative business, from the effects of God’s activity discernible by reason and the senses, to the conclusion that God must exist (based on Rom. 1:20). But the conclusion, the concept of God that is instantiated, is identical with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is what may have confused the debate that occurs of whether the Five Ways is a piece of theology or of philosophy.
Aquinas more than once says that the Five Ways are exercises in nature and its relation to grace. That is to say, grace builds on nature, it does not supplant it. Christianity is not gnostic. This is rather different from Oliphint’s attitude to nature, as in ‘natural reason.’ Natural human gifts and powers are not primarily seen by him as a gift of God to be relied on, but as an expression of mankind’s godless rebellion. Its supposed neutrality (unexplained) is a mask. At this point Oliphint seems prisoner of a fairly recent development in Reformed thought, where nature is uniformly regarded as in tension with grace. There is talk of a duality or dualism, a nature/grace dichotomy, and so on. These expressions are the call sign of one of Abraham Kuyper’s tendencies, sharpened by Herman Dooyeweerd, and exported to North America in several locations—Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia being one of them. But judged by the historic Reformed attitude to nature, it is an innovation. This is how Oliphint comes to accept the preposterous assertion that reliance on nature as a theological source is ‘Arminian’ (e.g., 121). To earlier Reformed theology, nature and grace were not antagonistic toward one another.
It is surprising that Oliphint does not even note the place of Aquinas as a prime source of later medieval scholasticism’s impact in the development of Reformed Orthodoxy. Sadly, he has nothing to say about any of this. Nonetheless, students of their theology will be aware of the fact that Reformed theologians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had positive things to say about natural theology which mirror to an extent what we have seen in Thomas’s ST. So it is that in the first chapter of his Institutes of Elenctic Theology the Genevan theologian Francis Turretin (1623-87) raises the issue of natural theology. He frames his discussion in terms rather like Thomas. The Third Question of the First Topic is entitled ‘Whether natural theology may be granted.’ This is equivalent to asking, ‘Is natural theology permissible?’ Here Turretin is in controversy with the Socinians, who denied it. He affirms it.

The orthodox, on the contrary, uniformly teach that there is a natural theology, partly innate (derived from the book of conscience by means of common notions [koinas ennoias]) and partly acquired (drawn from the book of creatures discursively).[1]

He cites the time-honored texts, Romans 1:19-20, 2:14, Acts 14, and 17, and so on.
Turretin and Reformed theologians more generally see natural theology warranted by these biblical passages as referring to “some knowledge of God as Creator and preserver however imperfect, corrupt and obscure; another [i.e., revealed theology] to have a full, entire and clear knowledge of God as Redeemer and of the lawful worship due to him.”[2] In Romans, Turretin argues:

He [Paul] wants to demonstrate that neither the Gentiles by nature (chap. 1) nor the Jews by the law (ch. 2) could be justified (because all are sinners), but only by the gospel revealed by Christ.[3]
Such a distinction between natural and revealed theology is for the Reformed ultimately based on Calvin’s twofold knowledge of God: God as Creator (in Book I of the Institutes) and then God as Redeemer in Christ. The Westminster Confession’s references to the ‘the light of nature’ (1.1; 1.6; 10.4; 20.4; and 21.1; 21.7) and those of the 1689 Baptist Confession similarly (1.1; 1.6; 10.4; 20.2; 22.7), seem to be in line with Thomas’s understanding of John 1. Note also Calvin on John 1:9, where he says:

[F]rom this light the rays are diffused over all mankind as I have already said. For we know that all men have this peculiar excellence which raises them above other animals, that they are endued with reason and intelligence and that they carry the distinction between right and wrong engraved on their conscience. There is no man, therefore whom some perception of the eternal light does not reach.[4]

The Reformed came to adopt a way of theological education that mirrored that of the Roman Catholic scholastics. After all, many of them had encountered the Reformation having first been trained as Roman Catholic educators.
Here is one explanation of how Oliphint comes to be seriously awry in the way he treats the Five Ways as an apologetic. At one point he mentions how, since their introduction, the Five Ways have taken on a life of their own (55). This is certainly true. I believe he himself understands them in this fashion, as exercises without any place in the overall thought of Thomas himself or of the church, but as a species of ‘evidential apologetics.’ These are the products of natural reason, of philosophy (12). Once the Five Ways were circulated there was nothing to stop people changing the original purpose of these proofs, to demonstrate this fundamental article of the faith, that God exists, by reason, and migrating them to apologetics. This is what happened first in the era of the Enlightenment, and then in the last century and in the current one. The scriptural and Christian context of the Five Ways was excised; they were extracted from this context and became timeless exhibits in the glass case of ‘Reason and Religion’ and ‘Proofs of God’s existence,’ as Oliphint points out. He mentions their uses by modern evangelicals such as Norman Geisler, R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and others (55-56).
Oliphint’s understanding is not intended to praise Thomas, but the reverse. Having been re-located in this way, more significant is his assessment of the Five Ways and their place in apologetics. Oliphint’s own interest in them is largely due to them together forming a distinct apologetic strategy, one that he is resolutely opposed to, and not as part of understanding Aquinas’s rather complex thought, even though Aquinas and not apologetics is the topic of his book (56). But Aquinas ought not to be tarred with this Enlightenment brush. It is a failure of Oliphint’s ahistorical approach. Oliphint’s understanding of apologetics is also ahistorical.
Oliphint concurs in this extracting of the Five Ways from their original context in Thomas, not recognizing their place as demonstrations, at a tangent from the development in dogmatics, of the articles of the Christian faith, as we saw earlier. He does this to make his critique of Thomas more pointed. He exaggerates the importance of the Five Ways, as in “Thomas thinks that natural reason forms the foundational structure of which revelation is the superstructure, in part because of his understanding of certain biblical passages” (13). There is no evidence for this in the ST. Such foundationalism is too simplistic a model for Thomas’s understanding of the connections between faith and reason.
Revelation affords truths about God not available via natural reason alone. We have seen that, for Aquinas, revelation functions as the source of the articles of the faith, knowable by certitude, by reliance upon authority. And how could Thomas discuss and justify natural theology foundationally at the same time while relying on the articles of the faith?

By grace we have a more perfect knowledge of God than we have by natural reason. The light of grace strengthens the intellectual light and at the same time prophetic visions provide us with God-given images which are better suited to express divine things than those we receive naturally from the sensible world. Moreover God has given us sensible signs and spoken words to show us something of the divine, as at the baptism of Christ when the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove and the voice of the Father was heard saying This is my beloved Son. (ST, 1a 12.13)

Oliphint’s sharp critique of Thomas in Chapters 2 and 3 of his book pivots on his own neo-Calvinist apologetics, even though Aquinas (not apologetics) is the ostensible topic of his book (55-56).
Once the Five Ways were relocated they fared differently according to the different ways in which they are used. It is a fact that they pre-date the skepticism of David Hume, as also the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (124). But considered as contributions to Christian natural theology, either Roman Catholic or Reformed, they are more timeless, having an abiding place in these theological outlooks. We must never forget that. Once Oliphint has divested the Five Ways of their medieval apparatus and complexity, though seemingly being largely unaware of this treatment of them, then (as far as I can see) there remains little or nothing of Oliphint’s treatment of Aquinas that would not be applicable to a treatment of the context-less cosmological arguments of a modern collection of such arguments, or of their textbook discussion.[5]
It is fair enough to comment on a Great Thinker with one’s own interests in mind, but one cannot necessarily form an estimate of such a thinker’s greatness from doing so. I shall try to make some comments on the author’s treatment of topics in Chapters 2 and 3, even though they are often beside the point as far as an understanding of Aquinas is concerned.





[1] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992), 1.3.4 (1:6).
[2] Turretin, Institutes, 1.4.6 (1:11).
[3] Turretin, Institutes, 1.3.6 (1:7).
[4] John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel of John (CTS,  repr. Baker Book House, 1979), 38.
[5] It is testimony to the strength of this contextless emphasis that the contemporary scholar of Aquinas, Brian Davies, can edit a contemporary guide and anthology, The Philosophy of Religion, (Oxford: O.U.P, 2000), in which he devotes a section to cosmological arguments, one of which is a Way of Thomas, without supplying any original context.