THOMAS AQUINAS

Thomas reversed Anselm’s dictum, “I believe in order that I may under- stand”.  With Aquinas the engine of fact or reason drives the caboose of faith.  Plato had given the church an inward/upward focus for 1,000  years. Then Aquinas revived Aristotle’s idea of studying things in nature to discover truth.  Thomas hoped the natural theology he derived from this idea would give rational validation of faith for the unbeliever.

Who was Thomas Aquinas? Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274) was the father of natural theology.  He became the greatest, though not the first, Scholastic empiricist. He was born to a family of noble descent in the kingdom of Naples.  He became a Dominican Friar and taught theology and philosophy at Paris and Rome.  He is one of the few whose first name, “Thomas” or “Thomism”, evokes instant recall. His greatness was seen early by his instructor Albertus Magnus at the university in Paris. Thomas was nicknamed “the dumb ox” by his fellow students.  But after a far-ranging interview with him Magnus chastised the class.  “You call your brother Thomas a dumb ox,” he said, “Let me tell you that one day the whole world will listen to his bellowings.” Aquinas appeared like a comet, and left an amazing literary legacy in his brief 49 years. He tried to combine the pagan wisdom of Aristotle with Scripture, relying heavily on human reason. For example,  he defined law as “an ordinance of human reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community.”

Historical context. Before Aquinas Western Europe, with its monasteries and other-world focus, lay under the spell of Plato. The Crusade era began in 1096.  One result was an opening up of Western Europe to ancient writings before unavailable. Aristotle was buried in darkness to the western  mind for over 1,000 years.  Then  Aquinas imported him into the church. Many Greek writings were locked up in the translations and commentaries of Moslems like Averroes.

Summary of Thomas Aquinas teaching. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica was the most far-reaching effort ever to combine Aristotle’s humanism and the Bible.  Aquinas hoped that this natural theology would comprise a common ground from which to engage the unbeliever. He felt the Christian must appeal to the natural man with reason to justify placing his faith in Christ. In other words, he turned Anselm’s axiom — “I believe in order that I may understand” — on its head. According to Francis Schaefer, Aquinas held an incomplete view of the Fall in which “the will was fallen or corrupted, but the intellect was not affected” (10).   

In Thomism, the intellect of man was mostly untouched by the Fall.  Thus, the power of reason to derive truth from the particulars of nature was raised above Scripture. Aquinas is called an empiricist because he held that knowledge comes from experience or the senses. The opposite is rationalism, ala Descartes.  Here the mind alone deduces truth a priori, or independent of experience.

Implications for subsequent history. A Christian worldview resting on such shaky mental props was not hard to discredit.  When the props were rather easily kicked away it imploded. Aquinas retreated from his work in the final months of  life, but it was too late. His rationalism had become the foundation of Roman Catholic epistemology.  It was to have a powerful influence on Protestantism as well.

On the plus side, Aristotle’s focus on particulars awakened a new love for nature and artistic expression.  This came to full flower in the Renaissance. Modern science differed from Aristotle in theory.  But it was born in part because of his focus on everyday things in the world.  Sadly, real science was perverted by the cult of “Scientism.”  With Scientism inductive testing by the scientific method became the measure of truth. The only “reality” was the material.  Belief in the supernatural became untenable. By this oblique route, Thomism fostered a cultural climate in which the state could disengage from its moorings in the Bible. This was also true of other realms such as education and science.   This trend had been set in motion a century earlier by the investiture struggle.  At that time the church had shaken off the chains of state domination.

Biblical analysis. The Bible’s approach to truth is deductive. That is we start with authoritative premises given by God and work out from there. “Forever, O Lord, Thy word is settled in heaven…I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts” (Ps. 119:89, 100). “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” says the Proverb.  Only when we start with faith in God as the basis of all wisdom can we have a balanced knowledge of anything.  Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that reality was close at hand, in the nature of things as they exist. It follows that the path to truth consists of looking at patterns in the particulars of nature.  There is no reference to Scripture.  This is Aquinas’ nature-grace dichotomy.  God does not forbid this analytic approach to studying His world, but only in the context of the Bible worldview. Many times in Job 37-39, God asks questions about nature to expose our ignorance and weakness next to Him.  Then He concludes, “Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct Him?” (Job 40:2). Moreover, our minds are fallen and cannot perceive truth in nature apart from the Bible. Thus, any attempt to create a so-called natural theology is an exercise in futility.  It ultimately undermines Bible  theology.

Corrective or prescriptive actions. The model of Aquinas permits the  unbeliever  to set himself up like Eve.  He fancies himself a judge who may logically choose among various systems of thought. We must challenge his foolish attempts to sit in judgment of God’s Word