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.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Review of Oliphint's new book on Aquinas



Thomas Aquinas

This is the opening sections of a longish review article on Scott 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."


Thomas Aquinas by K. Scott Oliphint:
A Review Article
Paul Helm*


Here is an account of the thought of Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), one of a new series on Great Thinkers published by P&R Publishing.[1] Aquinas wrote extensively on theology and philosophy, as well as being a biblical commentator. He was a major influence on the rise of scholasticism, which both affected Roman Catholic thought from the fourteenth century onward and which was in turn influential on Reformed Protestantism, particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. So, it is appropriate in more ways than one that we should pay attention to him and his legacy.

Approaching the Summa Theologiae

K. Scott Oliphint, Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, has a tall order, which he has approached rather idiosyncratically. Faced with the massive body of Aquinas’s writing, Oliphint has chosen to select material almost exclusively from Part I of the Summa Theologiae (ST), Question 1 on the nature of theology, proofs for the existence of God (Question 2), and on the nature of God, chiefly his simplicity (Question 3). He sees Thomas exclusively through the lens of foundational apologetics, that is, as someone who uses rational proofs of God’s existence as the foundation of Christian theology.

However, someone approaching this great work at the beginning (from Question 1), will note that Aquinas does not begin his theological discussion to follow on with apologetics. Rather, he prepares a Christian readership with a basic discussion of articles, or questions, about theology itself, such as: Is theology necessary besides philosophy? Is theology a science? Is it a theoretical or practical endeavor? How does it compare with other sciences? Does it set out to prove anything? What is its attitude to the “sacred writings”? Is God the subject of this science? Is this teaching probative? Should holy teaching employ metaphorical or symbolical language? Can one passage of Holy Scripture bear several senses? Discussion of these questions ends the articles of Question 1. At least some of these questions, I dare say, are unfamiliar these days.

Question 2, entitled ‘The Existence of God,’ has several articles that arise from the discussion of Question 1. This leads to the following: ‘Whether the existence of God is self-evident?’, ‘Whether it can be demonstrated that God exists?’, and ‘Whether God exists?’ The answer to this final question contains his famous ‘Five Ways’ of proving God’s existence, followed (in Question 3) by a discussion on the simplicity of God. This entails the following questions: Is God a body? Is he, that is to say, composed of extended parts? Is he composed of form and matter? Is God to be identified with his own essence or nature, with that which makes him what he is? Can one distinguish in God essence and existence? Can one distinguish in God genus and difference? Is he composed of substance and accidents? Is there any way in which he is composite, or is he altogether simple? Does he enter into composition with other things? These are strange questions to our minds.

Aquinas’s discussion of divine simplicity is particularly significant in that it is a notion that is entailed both by his opening remarks on the articles of Christian theology and his proofs of God’s existence. Prior to the occurrence of the Five Ways in Question 3 of Part One, Thomas tells us in more than one place that God cannot be known as he is in himself, but by what he brings about, his effects.
He points out in 1a 1.7 that we cannot know what God is but by some effect or effects of nature or grace. For God cannot be defined. He reiterates the point in 1a 2.1, and it is expanded further in 1a 2.3. Shortly after this point he comes to the Five Ways which are five arguments from effects to their divine cause.
Oliphint ignores almost everything else that Aquinas wrote, both in the ST or elsewhere, and what he reflects on he does not do a very good job.

Regarding some of these apologetic questions, there is great pressure to think that the proofs of God’s existence that Thomas sets forth in ST, 1a 1.2.3[2] referred to as the Five Ways, are foundational to the existence of the articles of faith, the doctrines of the Christian faith, such that everyone committed to the articles has first to be committed to the proofs. But this is a mistake, as we shall see. This pressure does not come from Aquinas himself, but from the way in which his proofs of the existence of God have become separated from the body of his theology, as rational ‘proofs’ in the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment sense. Aquinas rarely refers to ‘foundations’ in the modern sense, though they figure prominently in Oliphint’s account of him.

Oliphint underscores this, incidentally, by pointing out that several different versions of the proofs are extant in Thomas’s writings (56-57). This suggests a philosopher working on arguments that he is not altogether satisfied with, rather than with someone aiming at canonical finality. The reference to Exodus 3:14 in the proofs (1a 2.3) does not detract from their philosophical character in the ST; rather, it shows them to be a philosophical project whose aim is to demonstrate that a conclusion, namely, that God exists, is not only reasonable, but is also consistent with the God of revelation.

It is a great pity that the author has not given to his readers some idea of the sweep of Thomas’s philosophical and theological ideas. He has also decided to pay very little attention to the different ways in which he has been influential in the history of theology subsequently, both in Roman Catholicism and in Protestantism. In this review we shall be following him in his largely unsatisfactory discussion of material in the first articles of Book I of the ST, which he treats in an avowedly ahistorical way (2-3). This extends to the idea of apologetics itself, which Aquinas hardly mentions.


Oliphint’s Approach

In starting his treatment of Aquinas in his book with Part One, Question 2 of the ST, and ending it at Question 3, I believe that the significance of Question 1 is missed. After a brief Introduction to Aquinas’s life and work, his book has two main chapters (‘Foundation of Knowledge’ and ‘Foundation of Existence’) derived from Oliphint’s estimate of the proofs, rounded off by a Conclusion. By this time the reader is aware that the author’s interest in his material is almost wholly conditioned by his interest in apologetics as it is taught in a modern evangelical seminary, and in particular the apologetics of the late Cornelius Van Til, not with understanding Aquinas historically, on his own terms. If we pay attention to what Thomas asserts and implies in Question 1, then it becomes obvious that Oliphint’s treatment is thoroughly askew of what Aquinas is endeavouring.

Once he starts reading the ST, the reader will notice at once the place of Scripture as a prime theological authority in Question 1: 2 Timothy 3:16, Isaiah 64:4, 2 Thessalonians 3:2, James 2:3, Proverbs 9:3, Isaiah 11:2, Deuteronomy 4:6, 1 Corinthians 3:10, Proverbs 10:23, Romans 1:19, 1 Corinthians 10:4-5, 1 Corinthians 2:15, John 20:31, Titus 1:9, 1 Corinthians  15:12, Hosea 11:10,  Romans 1:14, Matthew 7:6, Hebrews 7:19, and Matthew 19:8 are carefully cited. We shall consider the significance of the authoritativeness of such citations later, but from the start the Summa is to be regarded as a Christian production.
In the course of the treatment of this Question a number of significant contrasts are also introduced. For example, ‘Hence the necessity for our welfare that divine truths surpassing reason should be signified to us through divine revelation.’  ‘[T]he rational truth about God would be reached only by few, and even so after a long time, and with many mistakes.’ ‘[T]here is nothing to stop the same things from being treated by the philosophical sciences when they can be looked at in the light of natural reason and by another science when they are looked at in the light of divine revelation. Consequently, the theology of holy teaching differs in kind from that theology which is ranked as a part of philosophy’ (ST, 1a 1). Here Thomas compares philosophy to theology to the disadvantage of the first. These expressions bear on the relation of the nature of the proofs to the articles of theology.

So, it is Thomas’s view that revealed theology is in many ways superior to rational theology. What he refers to as ‘theological articles’ presuppose the existence of God. But the existence of God is not one of the articles of faith. Rather, it is presupposed by every one of the articles. Because of the greater certitude and worthiness of its subject-matter, theology is the noblest of the sciences. The topic of natural theology can achieve demonstration about God without faith, and may involve mistakes. So, there is a rather complex relation between the two.
Besides this emphasis on Scripture, and hence on the Christian character of the entire work, Aquinas informs his readers early on that there are within the project two kinds of what he calls scientia, an orderly body of knowledge. These are two because there is scientia from ‘the innate light of intelligence’ and then there is the scientia ‘recognized in the light of a higher science.’ I suppose Christian apologists must recognize that ‘personal foundations’ differ often in marked ways from person to person in those who are engrafted into Christ (e.g., the Philippian jailer differed from Lydia the seller of purple, Zaccheus from Nicodemus, Peter from Paul).

In this second manner is Christian theology a science, for it flows from founts recognized in the lights of a higher science, namely God’s very own which he shares, with the blessed. Hence, rather as [musical] harmony credits its principles which are taken from arithmetic, Christian theology takes on faith its principles revealed by God. (ST 1a 1.2)

So, the demonstration of God’s existence is a science, as is Christian theology, founded as it is on the Scriptures and on the teaching and preaching of the church.

We also stand in need of being instructed by divine revelation even in religious matters the human reason is able to investigate. For the rational truth about God would be reached only by few, and even so after a long time and mixed with many mistakes; whereas on knowing this depends our whole welfare, which is in God. In these circumstances, then, it was to prosper the salvation of human being, and the more widely and less anxiously, that they were provided for by divine revelation about divine things. (ST 1a 1)

Thomas has more to say about the science of theology:

Holy teaching can borrow from other sciences, not from any need to beg from them, but for the greater clarification of the things it conveys. For it takes its principles directly from God through revelation, not from the other sciences. On that account it does not rely on them as they were in control, for their role is subsidiary and ancillary; so an architect makes use of tradesmen as a statesman employs soldiers. That it turns to them in this way is not from any lack or insufficiency within itself, but because our understanding is wanting; it is the more readily guided into the world above reason, set forth in holy teaching, through the world of natural reason from which the other sciences take their course. (ST 1a 5)

Holy teaching, Scripture, special revelation, is directly from God. It can be clarified to our limited understanding by the help of other sciences such as logic, languages, history. But it is above reason, conveying the divine mysteries.

So sacred Scripture, which has no superior science over it, disputes the denial of its principles; it argues on the basis of those truths held by revelation which an opponent admits as when, debating with heretics, it appeals to received authoritative texts of Christian theology, and uses one article against those who reject another. If, however, an opponent believes nothing of what has been divinely revealed, then no way lies open for making the articles of faith reasonably credible; all that can be done is to solve the difficulties against faith he may bring up. For since faith rests on unfailing truth, and the contrary of truth cannot really be demonstrated, it is clear that alleged proofs against faith are not demonstrable, but charges that can be refuted. (ST 1a 1.8)

Perhaps these words tell us about Thomas’s views on apologetics. If so they are very different from those of Oliphint. These words will be a surprise to those who hold to his views. The entire article ought to be weighed.

So, there is a scientia of Christian theology derived from Scripture. Then, in Question 2, there is the question ‘Whether the existence of God is self-evident?’ Thomas’s answer is that God is evident, but not to us, and so that evidence has to be made to be self-evident to us by arguing from God’s effects as grounding God’s existence. This is a philosophical scientia: “From effects evident to us, therefore, we can demonstrate what in itself is not evident to us, namely that God exists.” And, as already mentioned, in that question Aquinas attempts to show this in detail, in five parallel arguments from effects, the Five Ways, that God exists. This is his natural or rational theology, for which he finds precedent in Paul’s positive remarks in Romans 1:20. So even his natural or rational theology is warranted by Scripture.
The fact that rational or natural theology begins with the existence of God while the articles of faith presuppose it, may make it seem as if natural theology complements or completes revealed theology, and that it serves to put the articles of faith on a firmer footing. But to draw this conclusion is a temptation that must be resisted. It finds no warrant in what Aquinas said of each of them. The proofs and the development of articles of theology are two distinct, complementary activities. Nevertheless, they are in some way related, or connected, as we shall shortly see.

Consider these two extracts from another writing of Thomas.

A thing is . . . an object of belief not absolutely, but in some respect, when it does not exceed the capacity of all men, but only of some men. In this class are those things which we can know about God by means of a demonstration, as that God exists or is one and so no body and so forth.[3]

And this from later on in the ST:

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 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)

The articles of the faith are for everyone, not for those only with the necessary aptitude and intelligence to study demonstrative proofs for God’s existence at their leisure, etc. Special gifts are necessary to formulate and follow philosophical arguments such as the Five Ways. So Christian Theology is available to all persons, learned and unlearned alike, but in different, though overlapping ways.
That God exists is a precondition for faith, the Christian faith. It may seem from this that the results of one kind of knowledge form the foundation for another kind. Yet we are not to assume that every time Aquinas refers to the existence of God he has the proofs in mind, much less that reasonable proof is a precondition of faith or  that such a proof leads to faith. In fact, the precise opposite of this is the case. If someone is not able to reason philosophically, they are nevertheless able to assent to the matters of the Christian articles by faith through grace.

There is need here to distinguish between Aquinas’s references to preambles, the praeambulae fidei and similar expressions, and his references to articles of faith and other similar expressions. It may seem that the words referring to preambles refer to preliminaries that are necessary to exercise faith, such that ‘God is one’ is not by itself an article of faith but what is preliminary to something being an article of faith. It is a presupposition of an article of faith that is, he thinks, demonstrable by reason by those who are appropriately gifted. Aquinas recognises that proving that God exists requires ability, leisure, and aptitude to carry out such a demonstration. Other such demonstrable truths that depend on the proof of the existence of God are that God is truthful, and that God reveals himself.

[T]he first principles of this science are the articles of faith, and faith is about God. Now the subject of a science’s first principles and of its entire development is identical, since the whole of a science is virtually contained in its principles. (ST 1a 1.7)

So we learn, for example, that since adherence to the Christian faith is a matter of faith in the main articles of the Christian faith, it entails an end beyond the grasp of reason [quoting Isa. 64:4]. This faith is meritorious,[4] and has the quality of certitude. Certitude is the unreserved assent of the intellect. It may occur where demonstration has not been achieved. This is a matter that involves the will as well as the intellect, being not objectively but subjectively certain, and so of primary importance. ‘[D]ivine truths surpassing reason should be signified to us through divine revelation’ (ST, 1a 1.1). By contrast, the ‘rational proofs’ are attainable only by a few, who have the necessary gifts. But the place of reason in Christian theology operates within what is revealed.

Aquinas teaches that Christian theology argues from its premises, not to them. He says:

As the other sciences do not argue to prove their premises, but work from them to bring out other things in their field of inquiry, so this teaching does not argue to establish its premises, which are the articles of faith, but advances from them to make something known, as when St. Paul adduces the resurrection of Christ to prove the resurrection of us all. (I. Cor. 15.12) (ST 1a 1.8)

Aquinas goes on to make clear that arguments for the articles of faith are held through revelation.

All the same Christian theology also uses human reasoning, not indeed to prove the faith, for that would take away from the merit of believing, but to make manifest some implications of its message. Since grace does not scrap nature but brings it to perfection, so also natural reason should assist faith as the natural loving bent of the will ministers to charity. (ST 1a 1.8)

In considering Aquinas’s thought we are dealing with the pre-Reformation church. As far I can see he does not regard working on the proofs as similarly meritorious.

Argument from authority is the method most appropriate to this teaching [viz. the understanding of the articles of faith] in that its premises are held through revelation; consequently it has to accept the authority of those to whom revelation was made. Nor does this derogate from its dignity, for though weakest when based on what human beings have held, the argument from authority is most forcible when based on what God has disclosed. (ST 1a 1.8.)

These various extracts and references underline the fact that the ST is a Christian work from the start and it assumes a Christian readership. It is taken as granted that this readership is familiar with and sympathetic to the theological articles. Such theology is drawn from the canonical Scriptures. From them have been derived articles of faith that may be accepted with certitude by which a person may have faith in the articles of the faith.

Sacred doctrine employs such [philosophical] authorities only in order to provide, as it were, extraneous arguments from probability. Its own proper authorities are those of canonical Scripture, and these it applied with convincing force. (ST 1a, 1.8)

The entire section of Article 8 is enlightening for Aquinas’s approach to nature, and by implication, to rational theology.

It is almost as if the conduct of natural theology and of Christian theology take place in two distinct groups at arm’s length from each other. And in a way this is true. For the curriculum of teaching philosophy and theology was such that natural theology (following Aristotle) is part of philosophy, preliminary to the study of the articles of Christian theology that is based on the canonical Scriptures. These matters reflect the character of the education for would-be theologians who had philosophical education before the study of revealed theology. Natural theology was conducted under philosophical auspices. Revealed theology had its source in special revelation.

As if to underline this, Aquinas draws attention to the relation of each, and to the relative value of each to the other in later on passages such as: ‘By faith we hold to many truths about God that philosophers could not fathom, for example the truths about his providence, omnipotence and sole right to adoration. All such points are included in the one article of faith “I believe in one God”’ (ST 2a 2ae 1.8).
The following on the theological virtue of faith is very similar.

From divine effects we do not come to understand what the divine nature is in itself, so we do not know of him what he is. We know of him only as transcending all creatures . . . It is in this way that the word “God” signifies the divine nature: it is used to mean something that is above all that is, and that is the source of all things and is distinct from them all. This is how those that use it mean it to be used. (ST 1a 13.8)

Aquinas’s opening words in the ST that we have been considering are very different from what they would have been had he believed that accepting the proofs are indispensable preliminaries to attending to Scripture.





* Paul Helm is Emeritus Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London
[1] K. Scott Oliphint, Thomas Aquinas, Great Thinkers, foreword by Michael A. G. Haykin (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017, 145pp.).
[2] References to the Summa Theologiae are by Part, Book, and Question, placed in the main text of this review. The translation used is that of the Dominicans, general editor, Thomas Gilby (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1963-70). It is also available in Kindle, and parts of it were reprinted in Image Books (1969), including the passages we shall cite.
[3] Thomas Aquinas, The Disputed Questions on Truth, Vol. 2, trans James V. McGlynn S.J. (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1953) 14.9. I have taken this and some other extracts of Aquinas from Arvin Vos,  Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985), 88.
[4] The presence here of the idea of personal merit, which came to be central to the opposition of the Reformation, reminds us of Thomas’s Roman Catholicism.