Few individuals in history have a legacy that can match that of the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas. So why is Thomas such a polarizing figure in some evangelical circles today? The answer to that question is not as simple as it may seem. To help us think through the theology and legacy of Thomas Aquinas, Credo Editor Lance English joined David VanDrunen, who serves as Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California and is the author and editor of numerous books, including Aquinas Among the Protestants (Blackwell, 2017).
David, no doubt you have heard a zealous Protestant say to you, “Aquinas is not only irrelevant to Protestantism but dangerous, threatening everything the Reformation stood for.” You are a Reformed theologian. So, let’s set the record straight. Why is that popular, angry rant so misguided and misinformed?
There’s a lot one could say here, but I’ll mention a few points briefly. One is that Thomas, whatever we think of his theology, was undeniably one of the most brilliant and influential theologians of the entire history of the church. He made enormous contributions to the shape of Western theology. No one can really understand the Reformation without knowledge of the fifteen-hundred years of church history preceding it, and Thomas is one of the most important figures in that history. Thomas was undeniably one of the most brilliant and influential theologians of the entire history of the church. Click To Tweet
Second, it’s a very odd thing to say that Thomas is irrelevant and dangerous for Reformation Christianity when so many early Protestant theologians studied Thomas, engaged his work respectfully, and often embraced the very positions Thomas defended (see David Sytsma’s article in Credo).
I might also add a third point: Thomas is a very clear, cogent, and insightful writer. Yes, we need to disagree with his conclusions at many points, but reading him carefully will challenge and reward readers and make them better thinkers.
Have Protestants too often relied on secondhand accounts of Aquinas that are misleading? Is it fair to say that the so-called age of Enlightenment led to an “era of ignorance” and if so, what role does Kant’s emergence among Protestants play in the rise of anti-Thomist Protestantism?
Most Protestants—even those with theological training—have read little or none of Thomas. Click To Tweet Most Protestants—even those with theological training—have read little or none of Thomas. So, they’re completely dependent on secondary sources. This would be unfortunate even if the secondary sources were excellent, since even great secondary literature is never truly a substitute for reading the primary sources themselves.
But, yes, a great many secondary sources are misleading. They often repeat familiar charges: Thomas embraced and baptized pagan philosophy, which thoroughly corrupted his theology; the foundation of Thomas’s thought was reason rather than Scripture; Thomas was a Roman Catholic theologian and thus an enemy of Reformation Christianity. (Matthew Barrett targets many more myths.)
There are deep problems with all such claims. Other people can give you a better assessment of Kant’s role in all this than I can, but I certainly think it’s true that Kant played an important role in the development of anti-Thomist Protestantism. Kant challenged the common Christian idea (of the early, medieval, and Reformation church alike, following Romans 1) that human beings know objective truth about God through perceiving and contemplating the natural world around us. Even many subsequent Protestant theologians who weren’t strictly “Kantians” sympathized with Kant’s challenge. One of the results was that “natural theology” came to be regarded as a bogus, anti-biblical, and anti-Reformational idea. I mention this because Thomas’s positive (though limited) use of natural theology became one of the chief reasons why Protestants dismissed Thomas. Many early Protestant theologians studied Thomas, engaged his work respectfully, and often embraced the very positions Thomas defended. Click To Tweet
How did Rome’s canonization of Thomas give the impression that he must be a Protestant enemy, and should we capitulate to Rome just because she claims Aquinas as her property alone?
This is a good issue to consider. It’s not just that Rome canonized Thomas; it proclaimed him the greatest of the scholastic theologians and held him up as the peerless guide for Christian thinkers. In light of this, it is understandable how favorable interest in Thomas’s work can be a stumbling block for Protestants. But we need to remember that Thomas was not a “Roman Catholic” theologian.
Roman Catholicism didn’t really come to exist until after the Reformation. Thomas was simply a medieval theologian, and the medieval church and its theology are the common heritage of Protestants and Roman Catholics alike. Thomas affirmed many things that both Protestants and Roman Catholics believe, and the fact that Rome claims him as its own doesn’t change that. Unless we want to say that the church of Jesus Christ began in the sixteenth century (which we don’t!), then we Reformation Christians need to claim the medieval church and its theology as part of our history.
It’s also worth noting that what has often passed for “Thomism” over the past couple of centuries is far from identical to Thomas’s own thought. On a number of issues, Protestants are absolutely correct to reject what “Thomism” says but would find, if they read what Thomas himself said, that Thomas’s views were in fact much better. Kant played an important role in the development of anti-Thomist Protestantism. Click To Tweet
One more thing: on some occasions, Reformed theologians agreed with Thomas’s views on a subject over against Roman Catholics. For example, consider the great seventeenth-century Reformed work, Synopsis of a Purer Theology. When refuting the common Roman Catholic conviction that original sin is simply the lack of original righteous, the Synopsiscites Thomas, one “of the more sound schoolmen,” who affirmed that original sin also involves a corrupt habit, sometimes called concupiscence. This sort of a thing may not have happened often, but it is fascinating to see.
The Reformation was indeed an Augustinian movement, but could we also say that it was Thomistic? What insights do Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, William Whitaker, and Jerome Zanchi contribute to a more holistic portrait of the use of Aquinas in the sixteenth century Reformation?
That’s an interesting question. In part, it depends on what we mean by “Thomistic,” and that’s not going to be easy to answer. Personally, I prefer not to say that the Reformation was Thomistic. It raises more issues than it solves. But there are two relevant things I believe we can say with confidence. First, insofar as the Reformation was an Augustinian movement, the Reformation was part of the same stream of the Christian tradition as Thomas was, since Thomas himself was an Augustinian. Thomas was obviously not exactly the same sort of Augustinian as Reformation theologians were, but we can say that John Calvin for example was part of the grand Augustinian tradition of which Thomas Aquinas was also an eminent member. On some occasions, Reformed theologians agreed with Thomas over against Roman Catholics. Click To Tweet
Second, a number of very important early Reformed theologians (such as the four people you mention) were immersed in Thomas’s work and made extensive positive use of it in their own theology. I’m not sure how helpful it is to call even them “Thomists”—that’s a debatable issue—but this does show how implausible it is to think of the Reformation as anti-Thomistic, or better, anti-Thomas.
How have prominent historical theologians like David Steinmetz, Richard Muller, and Willen van Asselt challenged the view that Protestant scholasticism was a deflection from the more biblical theology of Luther and Calvin?
We contemporary Protestant theologians owe a large debt to such scholars. They dug into the primary sources of Protestant scholastic theology as no one had done for a long time. They’ve corrected so many mistaken views about Protestant scholasticism that were simply taken for granted for most of the twentieth century.
Among other things, they’ve shown how some ideas that many assumed were “Roman Catholic” notions were in fact common views in both the Reformation and subsequent scholastic theology. (Natural law, an area of my own special interest, is a great example of this.)
They’ve also demonstrated how terribly misleading was the notion that Protestant scholastic theology was rationalistic rather than biblical. The scholastics knew the Scriptures well and frequently engaged in serious and well-informed biblical exegesis. Unless we want to say that the church began in the 16th century (which we don’t!), then we Reformation Christians need to claim the medieval church as our history. Click To Tweet
The work of these scholars you mentioned was just beginning to make a serious impact on the Reformed theological world when I was a seminary student, so I had the benefit of learning from their research early in my theological life. Protestant theologians through most of the twentieth century didn’t have that benefit, and there were far fewer scholastic works translated into English then. So, let’s not judge them too harshly for saying misleading things about scholasticism or about Thomas that almost everyone at the time believed to be true. But there’s really no excuse now for continuing to say such things.
Can you give a few examples of Protestant Scholastics in the seventeenth century who appropriated Aquinas and explain why?
One great example is Franciscus Junius, a Frenchman who finished his ministerial career teaching in the Netherlands. (I recognize that it’s stretching things to place him in the seventeenth century, but he didn’t die until 1602.) Consider, for instance, an interesting work recently translated into English, The Mosaic Polity, in which Junius develops a theology of law that follows Thomas’s in very close and unmistakable ways. Junius wanted to present a Reformed account of law but didn’t feel as though he had to make up a brand new, innovative version. He found most of what he needed already in Thomas’s famous account.
Turretin regarded Thomas as an important, eminent theologian of the Christian church worthy of engagement and didn't just dismiss him as a Roman Catholic. Click To Tweet Another example is the Genevan theologian Francis Turretin, sometimes regarded as the greatest of seventeenth-century Reformed scholastics. Turretin interacts with Thomas’s ideas a great many times in his magnum opus, the Institutes of Elenctic Theology. I haven’t gone through the work to count how many times he agrees and disagrees with Thomas, but what’s important to see is that he does both, depending on what the issue was. He regarded Thomas as an important, eminent theologian of the Christian church worthy of engagement. Sometimes he was right, other times he was wrong. But it wasn’t as if he could just dismiss Thomas as a Roman Catholic.
Some object and say, to retrieve Aquinas is to swim the Tiber. But you are saying that many of our Reformation fathers appreciated Aquinas and did not. So does engagement with Thomas Aquinas necessitate full accommodation to Roman Catholicism or is there a more favorable path of positive appropriation that includes critical engagement?
To be clear, I don’t advocate that Reformation Christians should be “Thomists,” but I think they should view Thomas an eminent, influential, and insightful theologian of the Christian church. They should read him, reflect on his work, and utilize it critically. At some points, he got things wrong. We can see just how necessary the Reformation was. But at many other points, he got things right, even brilliantly so.
I mentioned to one of my classes recently that if you’re reading Thomas on the vices there are occasions when you feel as though you should get down on your knees and repent—that’s how insightful he can be on the affairs of the sinful heart. But evaluating Thomas isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. Do we demand of our own Protestant theologians that they have to get everything right or else we won’t read them? I’m a confessional Reformed theologian, but I disagree with things in every Reformed luminary I’ve read—Calvin, Owen, Turretin, Bavinck, whoever.
Or what about Augustine? I think about my own church, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. I’m sure you’d find widespread esteem and praise for Augustine in our ranks, and yet if Augustine came before my presbytery for an ordination exam, we wouldn’t pass him! We think he’s superb, but we wouldn’t ordain him as one of our ministers. If we can study and admire Augustine, yet read him critically and disagree where necessary, why can’t we do the same with Thomas?
Again, for the record, no Protestant is saying that we should adopt everything Aquinas taught, such as his views of justification or the Lord’s Supper. So why retrieve Aquinas at all? Shouldn’t we just stick to a Protestant who gets everything right instead?
Our own Protestant theologians, who learned so much from patristic and medieval theologians and built their work standing on their shoulders. Click To Tweet To continue my previous thought: If we just stick to Protestants who get everything right (overlooking the fact that none of them do!) and ignore Thomas, we should also ignore Augustine—and Irenaeus, Athanasius, Anselm, and every other pre-Reformation theologian. But that would be a terrible idea, for several reasons. It works with a false view of our own Protestant theologians, who learned so much from patristic and medieval theologians and built their work standing on their shoulders. It also throws away so much wisdom we can gather from knowing the work, the struggles, the achievements, and even the failures of those who have gone before us, including those before the Reformation. And it neglects a wonderful way that we can enjoy the communion of the saints throughout the ages.
If we stand in staunch protest against Thomas’s doctrine of God and Christology, why does that put us in dangerous opposition to Christian orthodoxy itself?
Thomas was a defender of Christian orthodoxy. It’s the same orthodoxy that the reformers taught and that the great Protestant confessions and catechisms expressed. Click To Tweet To put this in perspective, we might consider something implicit in some of our earlier discussion. The Reformation didn’t attempt to reform everything, and that was because it didn’t think all aspects of medieval theology needed reform. When it came to issues regarding God’s attributes, his trinitarian nature, and the two natures of Christ in one person, the reformers embraced the orthodox doctrines the early church developed and confessed, most notably at Nicaea and Chalcedon, and which the medieval church continued to uphold. Thomas was a defender of this basic Christian orthodoxy. It’s the same orthodoxy that the reformers taught and that the great Protestant confessions and catechisms expressed. To say, for example, that Thomas’s conception of God was fundamentally poisoned by his use of Greek philosophy isn’t just a criticism of Thomas but also implicates most of the church throughout its history, including the churches of the Reformation, in some pretty massive errors.
One of the things we need to do, I think, is to help people understand better how Thomas tried to use philosophy: he didn’t view it as the master of his theology but as its servant.
And we need to keep offering a robust biblical defense of classical Christian convictions about the doctrine of God and Christology, and as we do that, I’m confident that careful readers will go back to Thomas and come to appreciate him as a defender and teacher of Nicaean and Chalcedonian orthodoxy.