- Reforming Apologetics (Introduction)
- Reforming Apologetics (The Light of Nature)
- Reforming Apologetics (Common Notions)
- Reforming Apologetics (Calvin)
Summary of Chapter 4
The burden of the fourth chapter of Reforming Apologetics is to argue that Van Til’s critique of Thomas Aquinas is inaccurate and unfair to the medieval theologian. While there are some problematic elements in Aquinas’s theology, Dr. Fesko concedes, it would be a mistake to dismiss Aquinas’s system in toto as a compromise with pagan thought, as Van Til asks us to do. Thus, we should not consider inherently problematic the appeals to Aquinas made by the later Reformed scholastic theologians.
Fesko summarizes the content of the chapter thus:
Here I will argue that Van Til and many of his students have misread Aquinas on the relationship between faith and reason as well as his use of Aristotelian philosophy. The chapter therefore first sets forth Van Til’s claims about Aquinas. Then it explores what Aquinas actually said. Third, it offers analysis as to why Van Til misreads Aquinas. Van Til’s most serious error, I believe, is that he reads Aquinas largely through secondary sources rather than carefully engaging Aquinas’s works. Such a methodology naturally skews his interpretation. Hence, this chapter focuses exclusively on Aquinas, not the subsequent Thomist tradition. … The chapter then concludes with some observations about Aquinas and Reformed theology and apologetics. (p. 72)
Van Til on Aquinas
Dr. Fesko summarizes “five main charges” that Van Til levels against “Thomas and the Roman Catholic position” in his book Christian Apologetics:
1. Aquinas follows Aristotle by speaking of being and then introducing the distinction between the divine and created beings. Aquinas does not begin with the doctrine of the ontological Trinity.
2. Roman Catholics try to prove the existence of God by employing the method of Aristotle to show that God’s existence is in accord with the principles of logic.
3. By appealing to the common ground of reason, Roman Catholics arise at the existence of a god through theistic proofs, and this god accords with the presuppositions of natural reason but not the God of the Bible.
4. Natural humankind are said to possess natural revelation and to correctly interpret it; there is no need for supernatural revelation to correct natural humankind’s (fallen) interpretation of natural revelation.
5. There are two Aquinases: Thomas the theologian and Thomas the philosopher. Thomas the philosopher appeals to and employs autonomous reason, and Thomas the theologian appeals to Scripture, but Thomas “the theologian need not at all ask St. Thomas the autonomous philosopher to reverse his decisions on the fundamental question about the existence of God.”
In summary, Van Til maintains that Aquinas has let the infection of Greek autonomous reason into the fortress of faith, and reason has taken over. Reason is the foundation on which Aquinas tries to build his system of doctrine and thus his apologetic methodology. (pp. 73-74)
In a footnote, Dr. Fesko references six other works “where Van Til makes similar claims.” He also cites Greg Bahnsen’s criticisms of the apologetics of E. J. Carnell and Francis Schaeffer as an example of the subsequent influence of Van Til’s critique of Aquinas.
What Aquinas Really Said
In this section, Dr. Fesko seeks to show that Van Til and his followers have misunderstood the roles that reason and the Five Ways play in Aquinas’s theology. The critics claim that “Aquinas constructs a rational foundation upon which he then builds his theological system. The system rests on autonomous reason rather than special revelation, or Scripture.” (p. 74)
As Fesko sees it, the issue boils down to this:
The chief question here is, Did the proofs ever serve as the primary ground for Thomas’s system, a rational stepladder that begins with reason and then rises to revelation? Quite simply, the answer is no. (p. 74)
Fesko argues that Aquinas “never advanced the proofs as a rational foundation for his system of theology.” On the contrary, the proofs function “only on the presupposition of faith and the authority of Scripture.” The proofs aren’t necessary for faith; rather, they seek only to show that faith isn’t contrary to reason but in accord with it. Some of the claims of the Christian faith, such as the existence of God, can be demonstrated by natural reason. However, those truths necessary for salvation can only be known by divine revelation.
For Aquinas, then, reason is merely “an assistant or handmaid (ancilla) to faith. Reason answers objections and clarifies revealed truths.” (p. 77)
Fesko proceeds to summarize Aquinas’s five famous proofs of the existence of God, noting that he prefaces these demonstrations with an appeal to Scripture (Romans 1:20 and Exodus 3:14) as support for his approach. Aquinas’s preferred method is to argue from effect to cause (i.e., from creation to Creator).
Fesko asks us to observe two things about the proofs. First, “they are probable demonstrations rather than incontrovertible proofs.” Second, Aquinas “does not intend them to serve as a rational foundation for faith”; the proofs are only meant to show that “the claims of Christianity are rational and even demonstrable, which means that Christians and non-Christians can enter into a genuine dialogue about God’s existence.” (p. 80)
Having defended Aquinas’s approach, Dr. Fesko now offers some explanation for the apparent disparity between the real Aquinas and Van Til’s depiction of him.
What accounts for the disparity? There are three chief reasons: (1) reading Thomas in the light of postmedieval developments, particularly a post-Enlightenment reading; (2) trying to divide Aquinas the philosopher from Aquinas the theologian; and (3) failing, ultimately, to examine closely the primary sources. (p. 81)
Under the first point, Fesko claims that post-Enlightenment thinkers such as Leibniz and Wolff took Thomas’s proofs and gave them a “rationalistic cast,” turning them into philosophical foundations, generated by pure reason, for their theological systems. Such thinkers argued “purely from reason to prove the existence of God, which stands in marked contrast to Aquinas’s revelation-based theology.” (p. 83) Critics of Aquinas, such as Barth and Van Til, have wrongly interpreted him through the lens of this rationalistic reinterpretation of his proofs. Furthermore, contrary to Van Til’s criticism, Aquinas accepted that human reason has been damaged (but not completely destroyed) by the fall.
Part of the problem here, Fesko suggests, is that Van Til “largely engaged Aquinas through secondary sources” (p. 85). Moreover, Van Til lumped Aquinas together with Joseph Butler as representatives of the “traditional method” in apologetics, despite the significant differences in their form of argumentation. For example: “In contrast to Butler, Aquinas’s opening chapters of the [Summa Contra Gentiles] are replete with quotations and citations of Scripture.” (p. 86)
Regarding the second point, Van Til “operates within a context where Roman Catholic philosophers tried to present Aquinas as a philosopher.” (p. 87) Yet Aquinas would not have regarded himself as a philosopher, but simply as a Christian theologian who makes use of reason and engages with philosophical thought. Like Augustine, he is committed to faith seeking understanding.
Lastly, Van Til’s critique of Aquinas is problematic because he rarely cites primary sources: “he hardly interacts with what Aquinas actually states, and in particular he does not factor in Aquinas’s doctrine of Scripture and its role within his apologetic methodology.” (p. 89) Aquinas holds that the proofs are biblically warranted. “In the simplest terms, Aquinas believes reason can discover God because the Bible says so.” (p. 90)
Faith Seeking Understanding
What Van Til fails to acknowledge, Fesko contends, is that Aquinas stood firmly in the fides quaerens intellectum tradition of Augustine and Anselm. Van Til criticized Anselm’s ontological argument for seeking to prove God’s existence by autonomous reason, but he “never acknowledges that Anselm begins his argument from the presupposition of faith seeking understanding.” (p. 91) The cast of Anselm’s ontological argument is very different from that of Descartes, whose argument is “devoid of Scripture” (p. 92). Van Til’s analysis of these medieval theologians fails to recognize their intellectual context, treating them as if they were Enlightenment rationalists who appealed to pure reason as a foundation for faith.
Reforming Thomas and Correcting Van Til
The upshot of all this, according to Dr. Fesko, is not that we should side with Aquinas over Van Til. Rather, we should recognize that there is a mixture of truth and error in both of them. Furthermore, we should agree with John Frame that there is “a greater degree of agreement between Van Til and Aquinas than Van Til recognizes” (p. 93, quoting Frame’s Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, p. 267).
Aquinas has his faults: he attributed too much authority to the church’s interpretation of Scripture, and his nature-grace model doesn’t do proper justice to the corrupting effects of sin. Even so, that doesn’t mean we must jettison his proofs for the existence of God.
Van Til, meanwhile, was correct in his critique of Enlightenment rationalism, and “Aquinas would likely agree with his assessment.” (p. 95) Moreover, Van Til (contrary to what some have claimed) was open to the use of evidences in apologetics and did not reject the theistic proofs altogether. In sum:
Properly framed, Van Til was in favor of using the theistic proofs. Van Til’s mistake lies in his belief that Aquinas promoted a rationalist view of the proofs. The truth of the matter is that Van Til’s qualified description of an acceptable form of the proofs fits Aquinas’s own view. Van Til and Aquinas would not agree on everything, but they both employ a methodology that rests upon the principle of faith seeking understanding. Pace Van Til, Aquinas does not embrace reason seeking faith; he is not a rationalist. (p. 95)
The moral of the story is this: despite the problems with Aquinas’s soteriology and ecclesiology, Protestants shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Aquinas can be a “useful tool in the apologetics toolbox.” We should agree with Herman Bavinck that “Irenaeus, Augustine, and Thomas do not belong exclusively to Rome; they are Fathers and Doctors to whom the whole Christian church has obligations.” In Fesko’s concluding words:
Aquinas and other theologians of the Middle Ages and patristic period belong equally to Protestants. They have insights to offer, and we have much to learn from them regarding theology and, perhaps especially, apologetics. (p. 96)
When I mentioned to a colleague that I’d be blogging through Dr. Fesko’s book, I joked that there would be something in the series to upset everyone eventually. That prophecy may be fulfilled in my comments on this chapter, because I agree with some aspects and disagree with others. Let’s begin with the positives.
1. I believe Dr. Fesko is right to emphasize that Aquinas stands with Augustine and other medieval thinkers in the fides quaerens intellectum tradition, and that Aquinas never intended his theistic proofs to serve as a philosophical foundation for his theological system in the way that post-Enlightenment thinkers such as Descartes and Leibniz deployed them. Thomas is not a rationalist in that sense. Reformed critics of Aquinas haven’t been fair to him on that front. Aquinas only wants to show that some Christian doctrines, known by supernatural revelation, can be confirmed by natural reason.
2. I think it’s also fair to criticize Van Til for relying heavily on secondary sources and not engaging more directly with Aquinas’s works. Even so, Van Til engages frequently with Etienne Gilson, who was one of the leading authorities on Aquinas during Van Til’s career, so it’s not as though his secondary sources were dubious ones! If Van Til was interacting with Aquinas through the lens of Gilson and other contemporary scholars, then he was interacting with the interpretation of Aquinas that was dominant in his day. Van Til’s immediate target isn’t so much a historical figure as a theological-apologetic methodology advocated by self-described followers of Thomas.
3. I tend to agree with Fesko that the “Aquinas the Philosopher versus Aquinas the Theologian” analysis is somewhat artificial and contrived, and doesn’t do justice to how Thomas himself understood his work. But again, we shouldn’t judge Van Til too harshly here. As Fesko himself notes, one finds the Aquinas-as-philosopher idea in Gilson, who was one of Van Til’s secondary sources, and Gilson was an influential expositor of Aquinas at that time.
4. I also concur that Van Til’s lumping together of Aquinas and Butler is problematic. There are indeed significant differences between their two approaches to apologetics; Butler’s is distinctly modernistic, whereas Aquinas’s is (obviously) not.
5. Despite these important points of agreement, however, it seems to me that Dr. Fesko fails to acknowledge and engage with the heart of Van Til’s critique of Aquinas. Fesko’s focus on the role of the theistic proofs in Aquinas’s thought suggests that Van Til’s central complaint is that Aquinas was a rationalist, i.e., that he sought to build his theology on a foundation of autonomous natural reason, rather than biblical revelation. But I don’t take that to be Van Til’s main concern at all, as I will explain shortly.
As I noted in the summary above, Fesko outlines five charges, drawn from Christian Apologetics, which Van Til levels at the Thomist method (p. 73). What’s remarkable to me is that Fesko doesn’t directly address any of those five charges in the remainder of the chapter. Instead, Fesko focuses attention almost entirely on the “Five Ways” and how they function in Thomas’s overall system. Recall how he characterizes the “chief question”:
Did the proofs ever serve as the primary ground for Thomas’s system, a rational stepladder that begins with reason and then rises to revelation? Quite simply, the answer is no. (p. 74)
Fair enough. But note that this charge — that the proofs serve as a rationalistic foundation for a system of theology — doesn’t appear as one of Van Til’s five charges as Fesko himself had summarized them! Fesko’s discussion on pp. 74-81 simply doesn’t connect with Van Til’s foundational concerns.
6. What then is Van Til’s central problem with Aquinas’s methodology? There’s room for some debate here, since Van Til levels various (distinct but related) criticisms at Thomas and the Thomist tradition. But as I read Van Til on Aquinas, his main critique is a combination of charges one and two (as Fesko enumerates them). In short, Van Til’s objection is that Aquinas’s natural theology uncritically adopts Aristotelian metaphysics and epistemology as its starting point for developing proofs of God’s existence. But Aristotle’s metaphysics and epistemology have presuppositions that are at odds with a biblical theistic worldview; thus, the project is doomed to failure.
So what exactly is the trouble with Aristotelian philosophy? Van Til has quite a few things to say here, but the fundamental issue with Aristotle’s metaphysics is that it assumes a univocal ontology: everything that exists is assumed to have being in the same sense. Thus, it implicitly denies any fundamental Creator-creature distinction. Aristotle is basically a naturalist (albeit of the ancient, not modern, kind) for whom everything (i.e., every thing) is an individual substance, a form-matter composite. Put simply, the form makes something the kind of thing it is, while the matter is what individuates it from other things. Form is the basis for unity; matter is the basis for particularity. Everything we observe has this fundamental form-matter structure. And from this hylomorphic substance theory, combined with some other assumptions about actuality, potentiality, and change, Aristotle infers that there must be an Unmoved Mover or Prime Mover: a pure form, with no matter whatsoever, that is pure actuality. But this Prime Mover isn’t a personal creative agent; it’s a purely abstract universal. It isn’t entirely inert, since it does engage in a kind of activity, namely, intellectual activity. It is, as Aristotle famously says, “thought thinking itself.” But that intellectual activity is entirely self-directed. The Prime Mover doesn’t even know about us, never mind create and sustain us.
Aristotle has no doctrine of creation and thus no doctrine of a Creator. His metaphysics, we might say, reflects a one-circle scheme, where every existent shares in the same mode of being. (Imagine here a whiteboard with one circle drawn on it, with the word ‘being’ or ‘reality’ inside the circle.) In contrast, a biblical Christian metaphysics reflects a two-circle scheme with a fundamental distinction between the Creator and the creation. This distinction is arguably the most important metaphysical tenet of the Christian worldview — and it’s one that Aristotelian metaphysics fails to accommodate. Van Til’s objection, then, is that you can’t start with the latter and reason your way to the former — at least, not if you want to be consistent.
That this is a central concern of Van Til’s is apparent from the fact that it comes up in every major discussion of Aquinas and Thomism in his works. Some samplings:
The position of the Roman Catholic church on this point may at once be noted. While claiming to hold to the Christian theory of reality Thomas Aquinas and his modern followers in effect follow Aristotle in speaking first of being in general and in introducing the distinction between divine being and created being afterwards. The consequences are fatal both for systematic theology and for apologetics. (Christian Apologetics, p. 9)
All knowledge about anything, in particular about the human self, is knowledge to the extent that the Creator-creature distinction — what was left of it in Aristotle’s positing of the difference between the divine as entirely active and the human as partly passive intellect — is virtually wiped out. (The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, p. 87; cf. pp. 86, 89)
Thomas starts from the abstract concept of Being and introduces the Creator-creature distinction afterwards. He reduces the Creator-creature distinction to something that is consistent with the idea of God and the cosmos as involved in a chain of being, with varying degrees of intensity. His philosophy and psychology thus make any true Christian theology impossible. (The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, p. 91)
To apply the way of remotion in the manner of Thomas is evidence that one has accepted a way of affirmation that is not based on the Creator-creature distinction, but on the assumption of a unity that is above this distinction. (A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 170; see the entire section, pp. 169-75)
In fact, Van Til’s critique runs even deeper in other places, where he argues that Aristotle’s system drives an ontological wedge between that which particularizes (prime matter) and that which unifies (pure form). In contrast, a Christian metaphysics brings together both ultimate unity and ultimate particularity in the ontological Trinity (one God in three persons).
As for Aristotle’s epistemology, one of Van Til’s criticisms is that Aristotle is an empiricist (which goes hand-in-hand with his naturalism) who helps himself to metaphysical a priori principles that couldn’t be known on a strictly empirical basis. But we need not get into all that here.
Van Til’s overall point, then, is that if your raw materials for natural theology include a metaphysics that doesn’t acknowledge the Creator-creature distinction, and an epistemology that doesn’t acknowledge divine revelation, then you’re heading off into the jungle with a broken compass and a poisoned water-supply. You’re not going to reach the City of Gold. But that’s how Thomism would have us proceed.
Now, to be clear: I’m not arguing here that Van Til is right about all this. (At a minimum, Van Til raises some issues that Thomists ought to pay more attention to, but leave that aside for now.) No, my immediate point is simply that Fesko doesn’t really acknowledge or engage with any of these Van Tilian concerns, and the uninformed (or underinformed) reader will come away from this chapter of Reforming Apologetics with a skewed understanding of what Van Til finds objectionable about Aquinas’s philosophical theology.
(Side note: I’m sure some readers will be thinking at this point, “What good is a theistic argument that presupposes the Creator-creature distinction? Isn’t that just egregious question-begging?” The short answer: that’s one reason why Van Til advocates a transcendental argument. Van Til proposes an internal critique of any worldview or philosophy that fails to posit that basic ontological distinction, arguing that it would render human knowledge impossible.)
7. A briefer observation: Dr. Fesko says that Van Til criticizes Aquinas for being a rationalist. Well, yes and no. It’s true that Van Til charges Aquinas with rationalism, but not rationalism in the sense Fesko is concerned about (i.e., trying to build a theological system on a foundation of rational proofs as an exercise in “reason seeking faith,” p. 95). Rather, Van Til accuses Aquinas of both rationalism and irrationalism insofar as he embraces Aristotle’s philosophy, which incorporates elements of both. (Van Til uses the terms ‘rationalism’ and ‘irrationalism’ in somewhat technical senses that don’t neatly correspond to the way they’re commonly used in philosophical and theological discussions; see chapter 17 of John Frame’s CVT for a helpful exposition.) Again, to defend Van Til’s claims here would require a lengthy excursus. The only point I want to make is that Fesko’s defense of Aquinas misses the target here, because it misidentifies the target.
8. My third criticism isn’t as significant as the previous two, but it’s still worth mentioning. Dr. Fesko makes some claims about Aquinas’s proofs that strike me as misleading if not mistaken. For example, he says “we should remember that [the Five Ways] are probable demonstrations rather than incontrovertible proofs.” (p. 80) But I don’t think that’s how Aquinas or his defenders have viewed them. They aren’t merely probabilistic arguments; they’re deductive proofs. The Thomist philosopher Edward Feser, for example, insists that Aquinas’s proofs are deductive arguments with premises that can be known with certainty.
Moreover, Fesko labors to put clear blue water between the natural theology of Aquinas, which proceeds from a stance of fides quaerens intellectum and appeals to divine revelation for justification, and the rationalistic proofs of Enlightenment philosophers such as Wolff and Leibniz. For example, he writes:
Leibniz offers a purely rational argument, one severed from any consideration of scriptural authority. (p. 82)
In the hands of Leibniz and Wolff, the Thomistic proofs took on an entirely different rationalistic cast. (p. 82)
Leibniz and Wolff argue purely from reason to prove the existence of God, which stands in marked contrast to Aquinas’s revelation-based theology. (p. 83)
I’m afraid I just don’t see the distinction Fesko is drawing here. The fact is that Aquinas’s Five Ways also argue purely from reason to prove the existence of God! Sure, Aquinas thinks what he’s doing is consistent with divine revelation and even warranted by divine revelation. But the arguments themselves don’t appeal to divine revelation. Indeed, isn’t that the entire point for Aquinas?
Fesko tries to make the same move with respect to Anselm:
As with his analysis of Aquinas, Van Til presents Anselm’s argument as if it were a purely rational and autonomous attempt to establish God’s existence. Van Til never acknowledges that Anselm begins his argument from the presupposition of faith seeking understanding. (p. 91)
Descartes offers an argument devoid of Scripture, which is quite different from Anselm’s argument. (p. 92)
Again, I’m confused by this. Yes, Anselm’s ontological argument is developed as an exercise in faith seeking understanding. Yes, Anselm cites Scripture (e.g., Ps. 14:1) as he expounds his argument in the Proslogion. But the argument itself is a purely rational argument. It’s essentially an attempt to show that, given a particular definition of God, the denial of God’s existence involves a self-contradiction. The argument itself is “devoid of Scripture”; it doesn’t depend on biblical revelation at all. It’s no less an a priori rational theistic argument than Descartes’ ontological argument.
All this to say, while Dr. Fesko is quite correct about the theological context and rationale for the medieval proofs, that observation is strictly irrelevant to whether the proofs as such are arguments from natural reason alone. They are indeed — and they’re meant to be. Consequently, criticisms like “Van Til never explains why he holds that Anselm’s appeals to Scripture are invalid” (p. 93) are rather beside the point.
9. I’ll close with some conciliatory words. Dr. Fesko quotes John Frame to the effect that Aquinas and Van Til have more in common than Van Til recognizes (or is willing to affirm). I’m inclined to agree, albeit with qualifications. Some of Van Til’s criticisms don’t do Thomas justice. Aquinas was a brilliant theologian from whom many useful things can be learned. Reformed theologians don’t have to be either “all in” or “all out” for Aquinas; we can exercise discernment and separate the wheat from the chaff. So I’m happy to join with Dr. Fesko and others in the project of “reforming Thomas and correcting Van Til.” Even so, there remain some important disagreements about where and how Thomas needs to be reformed and Van Til corrected. Let’s continue the conversation!