First Principles: 25 Myths about Thomas Aquinas
The latest issue of Credo Magazine focuses on Thomas Aquinas. The following is one of the issue’s featured columns by Executive Editor, Matthew Barrett.
Who’s afraid of Thomas Aquinas?
Years ago, I walked into a theology bookstore and asked the owner if he had any books by Thomas in his collection. “I would never carry anything by that Popish heretic!” he said and walked away. That is the knee-jerk reaction of many (most?) Protestants today.
However, the Protestant disgust with Thomas is informed more by caricatures than careful history, more by stereotypes than scholarship, more by rumors than research. In my experience, most evangelicals have never read Thomas anyway and those that have read Thomas project their modern bias back on Thomas so that he lives up to those false impressions they have already embraced.
As a Protestant, I have strong disagreements with Thomas on major doctrines like imputation and ecclesiology. On these I will not budge and reserve a strong critique of Thomas. And yet, following the example of my Protestant forefathers, such disagreements do not keep me from recognizing Thomas as a beacon of orthodoxy and fountain of inquisitive acumen from which I can and should benefit. The irony of the evangelical revulsion against Thomas is this: Thomas was more orthodox in his doctrines of God and Christology than many evangelicals today. If evangelicals over the last century had paid less attention to modern theology and more attention to Thomas, they might have avoided drifting from Christian orthodoxy on doctrines like the Trinity and the incarnation. Thomas was more orthodox in his doctrines of God and Christology than many evangelicals today. Click To Tweet
Students will also gravitate to Thomas because his scholastic method is a didactic gift of extraordinary clarity, aimed at practical and personal instruction for the sake of the church. By retrieving Thomas, today’s student is only following the lead of our Protestant Scholastic fathers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They critically appropriated Thomas to guard the Reformed faith against radicals and schismatics in their own day. Here are but a few examples of Protestants who retrieved Aquinas directly or indirectly: Martin Bucer, Huldrych Zwingli, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Girolamo Zanchi, Johannas Oecolampadius, Heinrich Bullinger, John Calvin, Wolfgang Capito, Wolfgang Musculus, Theodore Beza, William Whitaker, Antoine de Chandieu, Francis Junius, Andreas Hyperius, John Owen, Francis Turretin, and more. Martin Bucer spoke for many Protestants when he said Aquinas is among the sounder scholastics.
Far more can be said. In the years ahead I will be writing a book on Thomas Aquinas with Crossway that will retrieve the dumb ox for Protestant theology today. Until then, here are 25 Myths about Thomas Aquinas that do not hold up to historical accuracy, but Protestants are prone to believe. Coming to terms with these slippery myths may launch you on a journey to find the real Thomas, a Thomas you will find a most astute and (dare I say) reliable exegete, theologian, philosopher, and pastor. There are many who are a “doubting Thomas.” May you not be one of them.
25 Myths about Thomas Aquinas
- Thomas allowed Greek philosophy to corrupt Christian theology.
- Thomas merely baptized Aristotle to construct theology. For example, Thomas baptized Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover without major metaphysical adjustments or improvements.
- Thomas was primarily a philosopher, not a biblical exegete or theologian.
- Thomas was a rationalist, allowing reason to reign autonomous and dictate theology.
- Thomas’s use of Natural Theology was actually advocacy for Natural Religion.
- Thomas’ God is impersonal.
- Thomas was a pantheist or at least a panentheist, both of which he never denies or refutes.
- Thomas represents a scholasticism that is speculative and elitist.
- Thomas betrayed the classical methods, theology, and spirit of the church fathers.
- Thomas was Pelagian or at least semi-Pelagian; he was not an Augustinian.
- Thomas was the target of the Reformation, not the late medieval nominalist views of salvation (such as the semi-Pelagianism of William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel).
- Thomas is the gateway to Roman Catholicism. Also, Thomas invites dialogue between Roman Catholics and Protestants that can only lead to ecumenism and compromise.
- No respectable reformer appreciated or appropriated Thomas once they converted to the Reformation, and certainly no reformer remained a Thomist.
- Thomas was accurately presented to Luther by late medieval scholastics (Gabriel Biel) and Luther’s contemporaries (Karlstadt).
- Thomas led Protestant Scholastics away from the biblical methods and theology of the Reformation.
- Thomas was mistaken on justification so none of his insights can be appropriated for soteriology.
- Thomas created dichotomies and strict dualisms between natural and supernatural, between body and soul, nature and grace, etc.
- Thomas taught transubstantiation because he was a slave to Aristotelian categories.
- Thomas is identical with the textbook Thomism of the last century…and just as hard to read.
- Thomas was rejected wholesale by modern Reformed theologians like Herman Bavinck who considered Thomas dangerous.
- Thomas has been accurately understood and therefore successfully refuted by Abraham Kuyper, Karl Barth, Cornelius Van Til, and Francis Schaeffer.
- Thomas is rejected by the best Reformed theologians today. Reformed Thomism is a betrayal of historic Reformed theology.
- Thomas is irrelevant to Protestantism and its history, as both evangelical and Roman Catholic historiography assumes.
- Thomas’s argument for God is the equivalent of evidentialist apologetics since the Enlightenment.
- Thomas has been read by evangelicals. A majority of his Summa conflicts with evangelical theology.
To learn more about Thomas Aquinas, here are two Credo Podcast episodes that can help:
Thomas Aquinas: Friend or Foe? Michael Allen with Matthew Barrett
Can Thomas Aquinas save us from (post)modernism? Peter Kreeft and Matthew Barrett