Reading Thomas and Remaining Protestant

image – Fishing For Souls: allegory of the jealousy between the various religious denominations during the Twelve Years Truce between the Dutch Republic and Spain by Adriaen van der Venne, 1614. Rijksmuseum. (image credit below)


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Is it safe for Protestants to read Thomas Aquinas? Is it safe for Protestants to teach Thomas Aquinas? In a short intro review, both on the WTS blog (August, 2016) and in the August issue of Themelios (volume 41), K. Scott Oliphint highlights a few reasons why not as conveyed in the book, Evangelical Exodus. This book tells the stories and recollections of 9 students from Southern Evangelical Seminary who eventually converted to Roman Catholicism.

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The first reason Dr. Oliphint highlights (also according to Evangelical Exodus) that these student converted was “the emphasis on Thomistic studies at SES led these students and faculty to pursue Thomas beyond the selective bounds of the SES curriculum.” As we see in a moment, this might be classified as an hasty generalization.

Then quoting from Evangelical Exodus the review continues, “What [these students] discovered is that one cannot easily isolate the ‘Evangelical-friendly Aquinas’ from the ‘Dominican friar Saint Thomas.’ There was no ‘historic Thomas’ with ‘Catholic barnacles’…” (p. 14). It was though – in the words of Evangelical Exodus – the seminary’s regard for Aquinas was that of a ‘patron saint.’ One of the 9 RCC converts says plainly that “the first thing that brought me to Catholicism was the Thomism at SES” (p. 167).

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The next reason, the one I wish to emphasize in this post, was (quoting from Dr. Oliphint’s review)…

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…an almost total lack of church history in the SES curriculum (pp. 27, 98). This lack explains the contrast that one author saw between the individualism of evangelicalism, and the community offered by Holy Mother Church (p. 66).

To Protestants who reject anything to do with Aquinas or to those who take up his writings only to critique them that kind of news is red meat. To be fair, SES replied to the criticisms of Douglas Beaumont’s book and takes exception to this simplistic way of stating the issue. You can find the SES response in a series of four posts on their blog. The first of the four posts began on Nov 3, 2016. That SES has a “total lack of church history” is doubtful.

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That there have been people converting to RCC, both laymen and those seeking office, is not a new thing (the reverse happens too). The painting at the top of this post is a symbolic scene of Dutch Protestants rescuing souls on one side and the bishops of the Roman church attempting the same.

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The original canvas showed only the Protestant fishermen successfully saving souls while the Catholic nets were empty. The “catch of souls” gathered near the Catholic boats was added later. Switching sides within global Christianity is not a new phenomenon. The difference now is that with the expansion of democratic societies in the modern age it’s easier.

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So for those of us who are not interested in over-reaction to Thomas or to the impulse for “switching sides,” the question still stands – Is there a safe way to read Thomas without the risk of swimming the Tiber? No. The reality is you could read any theologian or philosopher or get caught up with some self-help guru and end up drinking the cool aid. You could even read the Bible and end up becoming an atheist or agnostic. Many have. Billions have not. Soli Deo Gloria. FWIW, the title to Beaumont’s book, Evangelical Exodus, is hyperbolic.

There is indeed a sturdy and stable way, a muscular way, of reading Thomas while remaining Protestant. We should pursue this way rather than over-reaction or ambivalence. We can and should read Thomas where he is helpful. We can be clear on where he is erroneous. We can learn from Thomas without walking away from the treasures recovered in the Reformation and in the period of Reformed orthodoxy that followed it. Those treasures run deep and wide. This is why I list “discerning ways” to read Thomas at the bottom of this post. First, this.

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There is historical precedent for a Protestant approach to Thomas. Before we look at some of those discerning ways to read Thomas, consider for a moment why Thomas can’t be ignored, even if you are a Protestant. Thomas Aquinas died when he was 49. Yet, in the life-time God gave him Thomas wrote more than 10,000,000 words in 60 books or treatises. That body of work can’t be ignored or downgraded.

In a future post on this same topic I wish to note several helpful resources for Protestants who want to read and study Thomas.  In the remaining space of this post I list a few of those discerning ways that we can and should read Thomas. BTW, this list applies to any other philosopher, atheist, agnostic, theistic or Christian that we may be reading.

From a Reformed perspective, not merely Protestant, Ryan Reeves explains why we should be reading Thomas. In this Ligonier article ‘The Significance of Thomas Aquinas‘ Reeves prudently gives an overview of both valuable and problematic ideas in Thomas. We need to be aware of both categories. The valuable ideas are those which speak to Theology Proper, the nature of reality, some aspects of ethics and other aspects of Scriptural knowledge. As Protestants we have well-grounded reasons for disagreement with Thomas on how he explains the distinction between Nature and Grace, the doctrine of Justification and the centrality of Ecclesiology and Sacramentology in the Roman church. Yet, on the doctrine of God, the Five Proofs and many aspects on the nature of reality we agree. Reeves lauds Thomas’ contribution to those fields of inquiry:

The two great masterpieces of Thomas’ career were his Summa Theologica and Summa contra Gentiles. Both are among the most influential works in Western literature. The Summa contra Gentiles capitalized on the resurgence of Jewish and Muslim literature in the medieval period. Aquinas engages here in an apologetic with unbelievers by providing arguments for the existence of God and for the rational foundation of the Christian faith over against other worldviews.

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Thomas should not be ignored or dismissed as a theologian whose whole endeavor was one in error. We should read Thomas. What then are discerning ways of reading Thomas and remaining Protestant?

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  • What philosophical ideas Thomas had in hand (and by association ideas from Aristotle, Plato or any other philosopher he quotes affirmatively) are those of man who is doing exactly what a Romans 1:20 man should do. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made… Thomas was, along with the philosophers, pondering what he saw from both the material and immaterial planes of reality on what should be and can be understood. It is interesting that Van Til stated that all men should be doing this (according to Romans 1:20), but Van Til rejected the ponderings of Thomas who was doing just that (according to Romans 1:20).
  • Reading Thomas is not an exalted enterprise. Both Protestant and Catholic theologians and philosophers have made the mistake of elevating Thomas to nearly canonical status. Let us be reminded of that pride in ourselves and also projected onto another on our behalf is humankind’s greatest flaw. Wood Allen’s syllogism doesn’t work no matter on what scale we might attempt to apply it: “All men are mortal. Socrates was mortal. Therefore, all men are Socrates.” If you are reading Thomas, you are simply doing what you should do – being curious, being of a critical mind, being humble in the face of what you don’t know and in the face of the God who allows some men or women to know a little bit more.
  • Reading Thomas is good for how his ponderings on the nature of divine Being helps to keep our feet firmly planted on the solid foundations of Classical Theism and more importantly, on Classical Christian Theism. Thomas isn’t the only who does this well. There are many other philosophers and theologians, Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox who do this well. Read them all.

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  • Read Thomas as a part of a larger reading schedule that includes many theologians and philosophers. This relates to the impulse noted above, the impulse to elevate a given thinker. One of the sub-themes of this blog is the importance of reading widely. So I repeat that dictum again. Read Thomas, but read widely.

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  • Reading Thomas in light of the Reformation, in light of the era which followed it, Reformed orthodoxy. In Reformed theology we have a wealth of resources that there is no reason for us feel like we are moving through the world of theology or the universe of ideas without a rudder or GPS. We have John Owen. We have Turretin.  We have Calvin, Mastericht, Edwards, Bavinck,  Berkhof, John Davenant, Richard Hooker, and so on. When we widen the scope of reading beyond systematics to biblical theology, to devotional readings or to exegesis, then the list of resources is a mountain of treasures. There are many Lutheran resources that have stood the test of time as well. That so much good is available to the Protestant heart and mind is magnified by the fact that so many of these authors are now available for free or at a minimal cost. Click, click. Until recently it was not so easy. Enjoy!

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In the next post related to this topic of reading Thomas and remaining Protestant we will look at few resources that will help us to that end. Till then here is one that provides a good point of entry.

https://www.academia.edu/32170084/THE_USE_OF_THOMAS_AQUINAS_AND_ARISTOTLE_IN_REFORMED_THEOLOGY

 

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top image credit: Fishing For Souls by Adriaen van der Venne, source wikipedia