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Who is afraid of Thomas Aquinas? A reply to Scott Oliphint, part 2 (Paul Helm)

The following is part 2 (see first installment) of Paul Helm’s review of Scott Oliphint’s new book on Thomas Aquinas. Look for part 3 in the days ahead.

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. Click To Tweet 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 is 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 relocated 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.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at Helm’s DeepThe entire review is published in the Journal of IRBS Theological Seminary (2018): 163-93. It may be purchased at Do not miss part 1 of this two-part review. 

Paul Helm

Paul Helm is Emeritus Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London, and publishes online at his blog Helms Deep. the author of several books including Eternal God: A Study of God without Time, The Beginnings: Word and Spirit in ConversionHuman Nature from Calvin to EdwardsThe Providence of God, and Calvin and the Calvinists.

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