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Aquinas, Van Til and Biblicism

In this podcast, I explain what I mean by Biblicism. Once you understand my definition you can decide whether or not you agree with that idea or not. You can have your own definition if you want, but just citing it doesn’t refute my view. Regardless of how we define terms, there is an idea in history about which I’m talking. To attain clarity we all have to consider that idea and say what we think about it.

What is Biblicism?

By “Biblicism” I mean the view that in stating a doctrine (such as a statement in a creed or confession for example) we must use only words that come directly from Scripture. The Nicene Creed is not Biblicist because the fathers of Nicaea in 325 inserted the word homoousios into the creed to describe the relationship of the Father and the Son. The Arians criticized them for doing so because the word “ousia” is not found in Scripture. In fact, it comes from Greek philosophy. The council fathers wanted to avoid using non-Scriptural language but they found that every Scriptural formulation they tried was interpreted by the Arians in a subordinationist way and they knew that the clear implication of Scripture is that the eternal Son is in no way inferior or subordinate to the Father. So they used a non-biblical, philosophical term (carefully defined to exclude materiality) to express a Biblical idea.A doctrine can be biblical in the sense of being the true meaning of what is taught in Scripture even if it uses non-biblical words. Click To Tweet

Thus, a doctrine can be biblical in the sense of being the true meaning of what is taught in Scripture even if it uses non-biblical words. Ironically, sometimes being Biblicist prevents us from being biblical, as was the case at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

But this is not a licence to simply read the Bible in the light of any philosophical idea one likes. In my book Contemplating God with the Great Tradition I explore how theology is supposed to work. We start with exegesis and after a lot of exegetical work we begin to form doctrines. Then we deduce metaphysical implications of those doctrines and begin to shape our metaphysics. Using our developing metaphysical framework, we go back to Scripture and do more exegesis to see if our metaphysical framework needs revising or not. One way we can tell if it needs revising is if results in contradictions between doctrines or between the exegesis of particular passages. So we do a second exegesis and in so doing ask if our metaphysical doctrines need to be revised. In this manner, we gradually move toward a more and more biblical set of doctrines and a more and more biblical metaphysics. Reading Scripture in the light of our metaphysics allows us to penetrate deeper into the meaning of the text and its implications for our understanding of God and all things in relation to God.

Scripture and Metaphysics

The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches against Biblicism when it says:

“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory; man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture; or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (Chap. 1, VI)

So the standard here is very strict. We teach what the Bible expressly says plus what may be deduced (a logical term) by good and necessary consequence. It means not anything that is compatible with what Scripture teaches but only what can be deduced from what Scripture teaches – a much higher standard. The homoousios meets this standard; it can be deduced from what the Bible teaches.

What we never do is simply adopt a pagan metaphysical system and impose it on Scripture so that we force the Bible say what the system already said beforehand. To claim that Thomas Aquinas did that with regard to Aristotle’s concept of God is simply wrong. Our Protestant forefathers in the faith in the seventeenth century knew what Thomas said. And we today know it with even more clarity because of a century of high-quality scholarly retrieval of the thought of the historical Thomas Aquinas. A century ago, Thomas was being read through the grid of Neo-scholastic Thomism, which had been influenced by modern rationalism in the Enlightenment period. Many scholars thought at that time that Thomas simply adapted Aristotle’s philosophy, including his famous Unmoved Mover, and defended it. But that it not at all what happened. The scholarship of Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, the French Domincans and many others up to this present day has helped us see what happened in a clearer way.What we never do is simply adopt a pagan metaphysical system and impose it on Scripture so that we force the Bible say what the system already said beforehand. Click To Tweet

The early fathers from Justin Martyr to Athanasius interacted with Platonism (at first Middle Platonism and later Neoplatonism) during the first three centuries. They found the mainstream Platonist stream (which in antiquity included Aristotle) the most congenial of the Greek philosophers even as they rejected and opposed the Skeptics, the Atomists, the Epicureans and the Stoics. The Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy of Nicaea and Chalcedon developed during the fourth-fifth centuries using concepts like being, person, and nature that were borrowed from philosophy and given new, refined meanings in the context of a Christian metaphysics. Augustine passed this tradition on to the Middle Ages and the Augustinian synthesis was the basic framework for centuries.

By the 13th century, however, the writings of Aristotle were coming into the West and being translated into Latin. They contained ideas that threatened the Platonic-Augustinian metaphysics. Aristotle denied, for example, that universals exist in some sort of “Third Realm” knowable by the intellect. This was dangerous because it could easily be taken in a conceptualist or even nominalist direction. Aristotle seemed like a secularizing influence directing attention to a knowledge of the natural world by sense experience rather than emphasizing the intellect knowing the world of ideas.

The life of Thomas Aquinas was devoted to mastering the writings of Aristotle and integrating what was worthy in them into his basic Augustinian synthesis. Thomas was an Augustinian and he knew that much of Aristotle’s thought consists of sound reasoning. For example, he was not about to throw out Aristotelian logic, which he regarded as sound. So, just ignoring or totally rejecting Aristotle was not an option for him any more than ignoring or rejecting all Platonic thought had been an option for the church fathers. How can Christianity claim to be true if it was incompatible with the best science and philosophy developed by sound reasoning? It would be like saying that Christianity and natural science are incompatible. Both Augustine and Thomas were committed to the proposition that “all truth is God’s truth” and that general revelation cannot contradict special revelation. Unlike many fideists today, they were committed to the harmony of faith and reason, revelation and science, theology and philosophy.

Where Cornelius Van Til, Karl Barth and so many others went wrong was in thinking that Thomas simply took over Aristotle’s understanding of the impersonal Unmoved Mover unchanged and substituted it for the God of the Bible. They made this mistake partly as a result of the misunderstanding of Thomas that arose in the modern period by his interpreters, but now we understand Thomas better.

God is Pure Act

We can thank Etienne Gilson, in his many writings, for stressing that for Thomas God is defined as Pure Existence itself, which is to say that God’s essence is identical with his existence. God is Pure Act, or pure actuality. As such he is perfect and fully actualized. As the Unactualized Actualizer, he is the First Cause of all that exists outside of himself. Being Pure Act (actus purus) does not make him dead, or immobile, or static, or inert. Rather, it means although he has no potency in his own being, he has unlimited potency as directed outward (potentia ad extra). It is precisely because he is pure act without any potentiality in himself that he is able to be omnipotent, etc. with regard to creatures.It is precisely because God is pure act without any potentiality in himself that he is able to be omnipotent, etc. with regard to creatures. Click To Tweet

This concept of God, as expressed in the Summa Theologicae Part I, Q. 1-43 became the classic expression of the Christian doctrine of God. It was that because it summed up the patristic Trinitarian and Christological creedal orthodoxy, took into account the challenge of Aristotelianism, and set the stage for both Roman Catholic and Protestant scholasticism. This doctrine of God was presupposed by the sixteenth century reformers and enshrined in the seventeenth century Protestant confessions. It continues to be the common confession of all Christians today. It can be stated as follows:

God is the one, simple, immutable, eternal, self-existent, perfect, First Cause of the universe, who was dimly perceived by the philosophers, who revealed himself to Israel, and who is most fully known in Jesus Christ. God is one being (ousia) and three persons (hypostases), Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The three persons are equal in glory and majesty and one in being and will. Jesus Christ is one person (hypostasis, prosopon) with two natures (physis), fully human and fully God.

My main point in the podcast was to say that rejecting this doctrine of God just because Thomas Aquinas “used” (a nebulous term in need of clear definition) terms and ideas from Aristotelian philosophy, is highly irresponsible.

Some today say that we must reject Thomas because he used Greek philosophy in his doctrine; but that is Biblicism and Biblicism is wrong. The Nicene Creed uses non-biblical language drawn from Greek philosophy and so does Augustine and the whole patristic tradition including the major creeds. What would be wrong would be to impose a false doctrine drawn from a non-Christian source on the Bible in such a way as to contradict or distort the Biblical teaching. But just to point out that Thomas used Aristotelian concepts like actuality and potentiality does not prove he did that. In fact, he did not do that. He used philosophy in the service of theology.

Rejecting Protestant Confessions

Some today say that since Thomas Aquinas has other teachings relating to ecclesiology and sacraments that are wrong from our Protestant perspective, we as Protestants must reject his doctrine of God as well. The problem is that if we do so we are really rejecting the doctrine of God contained in our own Protestant confessions! Protestants cannot do that and remain Protestant. Since when do we have to either reject or accept everything a thinker teaches as a package deal? We should not approach any historical theologian or philosopher in that all or nothing mode. (Baptists who love Calvin but disagree with him on baptism should understand this point.)

My concern with some of the second and third generation Van Tilians today is that they use Van Til’s concept of the antithesis and some of his unfortunate remarks about Thomas to reject totally the teaching of a major figure in the Great Tradition. The problem with doing this is that, ironically, we end up rejecting the very Protestant doctrine of God taught in the Westminster Confession of Faith that Van Til himself swore to uphold. In our discussion, Chris Bolt suggested that Van Til would not have a problem with my use of Thomas and that Van Til did not want to reject the historic, orthodox doctrine of God. I am sympathetic to that view, but we still have to explain somehow the phenomenon of Van Til’s followers like Scott Oliphint and John Frame departing from the classical, orthodox doctrine of God. And we also have to explain why contemporary fundamentalists like Jeffrey Johnson and James White think they are following Van Til when they dismiss Thomas Aquinas in toto.We should not approach any historical theologian or philosopher in an all or nothing mode. Click To Tweet

My suggestion is that a number of factors may help to explain this confusing situation. First, there is an appalling lack of knowledge of historical theology today. This creates endless confusion. Second, there is insufficient appreciation of the vast gulf separating modern philosophy from classical metaphysics. (We talk quite a bit about this in the podcast.) Third, there is the way the Van Tilian idea of the antithesis, which is derived from the Dutch Neo-Calvinist tradition, has been seized upon by some and used as an excuse for why we don’t need to engage Greek philosophy point by point as the fathers and medievals did. It is convenient just to dismiss them totally because some of their ideas were incompatible with Biblical truth. This idea was not devised by Kuyper and co. as this sort of shortcut and substitute for scholarship.

In the podcast, Chris and I do not agree on everything, but we find a lot of common ground. I don’t know whether he is less of a Van Tilian than he thinks or if I am more of a Van Tilian than I think. In the end, this is not what is most important anyway. The crucial thing is that we understand the historic, orthodox, doctrine of God held in common by most Christians for most of Christian history and taught in the Protestant confessions we confess. In an age of deconstruction and relativism, the good news is that there is such a thing as a common faith handed on from generation to generation that does not change. God has not allowed his Church to be destroyed and will never allow that to happen.

This article was originally published in Dr. Carter’s newsletter. 

Craig A. Carter

Craig A. Carter is the author of Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis (Baker Academic, 2018) and Contemplating God with the Great Tradition: Recovering Trinitarian Classical Theism (Baker Academic, 2021). He is currently writing a third volume in the Great Tradition trilogy on the recovery of Nicene metaphysics. Other upcoming projects include an introduction to Theology in the Great Tradition and a theological commentary on Isaiah. He serves as Research Professor of Theology at Tyndale University in Toronto and as Theologian in Residence at Westney Heights Baptist Church. His personal website is and you can follow him on Twitter.

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