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Why we need an Aquinas

Why Thomas Aquinas can save mankind from intellectual suicide

Recently I was asked to identify my favorite theologians of all time. I quickly named them: Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. Then I was asked to rate them according to their brilliance. Being asked a question such as that is like being asked to compare Babe Ruth with Mickey Mantle, or Johnny Unitas with Dan Marino.

How does one rank the greatest minds of Christendom? Scholars tend to differ in style and scope. The magnitude of their brightness is as the stars in the Big Dipper. Luther was not systematic, yet he gave awesome flashes of insight, powerful vignettes of vision that changed the course of church history. Calvin possessed a systematic mind with the comprehensive grasp of theology that was unprecedented. Augustine was surely the greatest theologian of the first millennium of church history. Though his inconsistencies are well documented, he is distinguished by being one who didn’t have the shoulders of giants to stand on. Rather, his shoulders bore the weight of later giants, and some dwarfs as well.Though it is fashionable to contrast Aquinas and Augustine as following the disparate paths of Aristotle and Plato, it is vital to remember that Aquinas leaned heavily on Augustine. Click To Tweet

Though it is fashionable to contrast Aquinas and Augustine as following the disparate paths of Aristotle and Plato, it is vital to remember that Aquinas leaned heavily on Augustine. It is probable that Aquinas quoted Augustine more frequently than he quoted any other theologian. Which theologian did Calvin quote more often than Augustine? None. Luther was an Augustianian monk and Edwards is sometimes referred to as a neo-Augustinian.

The historic debt of all these men to Augustine is so evident that it guarantees a special place to the bishop of Hippo in the gallery of stellar theologians. But who, we ask, was the brightest? Whose mind was most acute, most keen, most penetrating? If the question is posed in this manner, then I am forced into a corner with a two-forked exit. I cannot choose between the two men whose intellects most intimidate me, Edwards and Aquinas. To choose between them is to choose between Plato and Aristotle, of whom it was said that in the realm of philosophy all subsequent work achieved by men like Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, and others, is but a succession of footnotes.

So who was the most brilliant ever?

Thomas Aquinas deserves my salute

I don’t know. I know the question cannot be raised without the name of Thomas Aquinas being brought to the fore. And I know that he deserves my salute.

Those individuals whom history honors tend to receive awards or titles never pursued or coveted. Such a man was Aquinas. Of the many titles lavished on him, the D.A. degree stands out in particular. We are familiar with degrees and titles of Doctor of Philosophy, Doctor of Laws, and Doctor of Literature. We have Ph.D.’s, D.D.’s, M.D.’s, and Th.D.’s. But Thomas Aquinas alone bears the title Doctor Angelicus.Thomas was committed to the service of God through the pursuit of an intellectual life. Click To Tweet

That Thomas was to be the Doctor of the Angels was not readily apparent to his school chums. His physique was unlike that of the stereotype theologian. Scholars are supposed to fit the mold of the frail, diminutive recluse, with bodies underdeveloped because of a sedentary life. Not so Thomas Aquinas. He was a big man, portly, suntanned, with a large head. He towered over his companions, no less in his massive physical bulk than in his titanic intellect. His appearance was so ungainly as a youth that he was dubbed “The big dumb ox of Sicily.”

The best estimates of historians set the date of Aquinas’ birth early in the year 1225. He was born in a castle near Naples, of noble parentage. He was the seventh son of Count Landulf of Aquino and Theodora of Theate.

His early years show indications that the hand of Providence was on his life. His predilection for theology was marked in childhood. At the tender age of five, an age when the modern child would be glued to the television set watching “Sesame Street,” Aquinas was placed as an oblate in the abbey of Monte Cassino. There he mused on the nascent questions of ontology that gripped his mind for his entire life.

Thomas’ father had big plans for his precocious son. Deeply embroiled in the political machinations between the Emperor and the princes of the church, Count Landulf sought the title of abbot for his son. Thomas politely but steadfastly refused. He borrowed a page from the life of his Lord and said, “It is better to obey the Father of spirits, in order that we may live, than the parents of our flesh.” Thomas was committed to the service of God through the pursuit of an intellectual life. He was driven by an almost monomaniacal passion to answer the question, “What is God?”

At age fourteen Aquinas left the Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino and was sent to Naples to study at the Faculty of Arts. There he came under the influence of the Dominicans and entered their order in 1244. His parents were not pleased by this decision and were further agitated when the Dominican General sought to send him to the University of Paris. On the way, Thomas was kidnapped by his own brothers and forced to return home. He was held captive by his own family for a year, during which he refused to abandon his habit and diligently kept the observances of his order every day. His zeal was so contagious that his sister was converted and his mother so impressed that, like the biblical Rebekah, she assisted her son in escaping from a window.Thomas was driven by an almost monomaniacal passion to answer the question, “What is God?” Click To Tweet

Thomas made his way to Paris where he first came under the tutelage of Albert the Great. Albert (Albertus Magnus) was to Aquinas what Socrates was to Plato. Albert poured his own titanic knowledge into the head of his most able disciple and followed his career with fatherly love. At the death of Saint Thomas, Albert was deeply grieved. Thereafter when Thomas’ name was mentioned in Albert’s presence, Albert would exclaim, “He was the flower and the glory of the world.”

After three years of study in Paris, Albert took Thomas with him to begin a house of studies in Cologne. In 1252 Thomas returned to Paris. In 1256 he received his licentiate to teach in the faculty of theology. In 1259 he went to Italy and taught theology at the studium curiae, attached to the papal court until 1268. In 1268 he returned to Paris to take up the mighty controversy of his day, the controversy with Arab philosophy. In 1274 Pope Gregory X summoned him to assist in the Council of Lyons. On the journey Thomas’s mission was interrupted by the angels. They came to take their Doctor home. At age forty-nine the earthly ministry of the dumb ox of Aquino had ended.

He preached, they wept

The most familiar title given Thomas Aquinas is that of “Saint.” Though Protestants are likely to use the word “saint” as a synonym for any believer, following the New Testament usage, there are times when the most zealous Protestant will make use of the term to refer to someone who has achieved an extra level of spiritual maturity. In Rome the title is conferred by the church to a highly select few who have achieved a godliness considered above and beyond the call of duty.

When we think of Aquinas, our first thoughts are usually of his extraordinary gifts of scholarship. His was indeed a prodigious intellect, but his greatness at this point should not overshadow the spiritual power of the man. We might conjecture that his canonization was prompted by his intellectual contributions alone, but the record belies such an idea. Thomas was as noteworthy as a spiritual leader as he was for his theological acumen.Thomas was as noteworthy as a spiritual leader as he was for his theological acumen. Click To Tweet

Within fifty years of the death of Aquinas the church conducted careful investigations into his personal life and teachings. Strong opposition to Aquinas’ teaching set in early, and insults were hurled against his memory. But on July 18, 1323, at Avignon, Pope John XXII proclaimed Thomas a saint. The Pope said of Aquinas, “Thomas, alone, has illumined the Church more than all the other doctors.”

The modern theologian-philosopher, Jacques Maritain, was jealous to restore a high regard for Aquinas in the twentieth-century church. In his book titled simply St. Thomas Aquinas, Maritain rehearses the traditions of Aquinas’ spiritual power and provides several anecdotes of alleged miracles that surrounded the saint. It was said of Thomas that though he contended fiercely in theological debates, he was able to bear personal attacks with a tranquil humility. Maritain relates the following:

One day a Friar in a jovial mood cries out: “Friar Thomas, come see the flying ox!” Friar Thomas goes over the window. The other laughs. “It is better,” the Saint says to him “to believe that an ox can fly than to think that a religious can lie.”

Witnesses who were summoned to testify at the canonization process of Saint Thomas described him as “soft-spoken, affable, cheerful, and agreeable of countenance, good in soul, generous in his acts; very patient, very prudent; all radiant with charity and tender piety; marvelously compassionate towards the poor.” If we examine these virtues carefully, we see in them a litany of what the New Testament calls the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Saint Thomas was also a gifted preacher. He would sometimes become so moved during his own preaching that he was forced to pause while he wept. During a Lenten series that he preached in Naples, he had to stop in the middle of his sermon so that the congregation could have time to recover from their weeping.

Passionate prayer

It is the mystical life of Saint Thomas, however, that has sparked the interest of biographers. Immediately after Thomas’ death, his disciple Reginald returned to Naples and declared:

As long as he was living my Master prevented me from revealing the marvels that I witnessed. He owed his knowledge less to the effort of his mind than to the power of his prayer. Every time he wanted to study, discuss, teach, write or dictate, he first had recourse to the privacy of prayer, weeping before God in order to discover in the truth the divine secrets … he would go to the altar and would stay there weeping many tears and uttering great sobs, then return to his room and continue his writings.

A similar testimony comes from Tocco. He said of Aquinas, “His gift of prayer exceeded every measure; he elevated himself to God as freely as though no burden of flesh held him down. Hardly a day passed that he was not rapt out of his senses.”Aquinas was concerned to distinguish philosophy and theology, nature and grace, not to separate them. Click To Tweet

Being daily “rapt out one’s senses” is hardly the routine we expect from abstract scholars and philosophers, particularly from someone like Aquinas who was given to the pursuit of logic.

The habit of passionate prayer is crowned by the extraordinary claims of miraculous visitations granted to Saint Thomas. Such incidents raise the eyebrows of Reformed theologians and we mention these accounts with the due reservations of our trade. Maritain recites the following episode as part of the Catholic record of Thomas’ sainthood.

Another time it was the saints who came to help him with his commentary of Isaias. An obscure passage stopped him; for a long time he fasted and prayed to obtain an understanding of it. And behold one night Reginald heard him speaking with someone in his room. When the sound of conversation had ceased, Friar Thomas called him, telling him to light the candle and take the manuscript On Isaias. Then he dictated for an hour, after which he sent Reginald back to bed. But Reginald fell upon his knees: “I will not rise from here until you have told me the name of him or of them with whom you have spoken for such a long time tonight.” Finally Friar Thomas began to weep and, forbidding him in the name of God to reveal the thing during Thomas’ life, confessed that the apostles Peter and Paul had come to instruct him.

Another event occurred in Paris when Thomas was lecturing on the Eucharist. As he went to the altar the brethren suddenly saw Christ standing before him and heard Him speak aloud: “You have written well of the Sacrament of My Body and you have well and truthfully resolved the question which was proposed to you, to the extent that it is possible to have an understanding of it on earth and to ascertain it humanly.”

That sober philosophers like Jacques Maritain report such incidences as simple historical fact is itself testimony to the extraordinary impact Aquinas’ spiritual power had on his contemporaries as well as his future disciples.

One anecdote about St. Thomas is virtually beyond dispute. Toward the end of his life he had a powerful mystical experience that dramatically affected his work. Again we turn to Maritain for his account of it:

Having returned to Italy after Easter of 1272, Friar Thomas took part in the General Chapter of the Order, at Florence, and then he went to Naples again to continue his teaching there. One day, December 6, 1273, while he was celebrating Mass in the chapel of Saint Nicholas, a great change came over him. From that moment he ceased writing and dictating. Was the Summa then, with its thirty-eight treatises, its three thousand articles and ten thousand objections, to remain unfinished? As Reginald was complaining about it, his master said to him, “I can do no more.” But the other was insistent. “Reginald, I can do no more; such things have been revealed to me that all that I have written seems to me as so much straw. Now, I await the end of my life after that of my works.”

After this experience Thomas Aquinas wrote no more. On his final journey he asked to be taken to the monastery of Santa Maria. As he was dying he asked for Viaticum. When he saw the consecrated Host, he threw himself on the floor and cried out:

I receive Thee, Price of my redemption … Viaticum of my pilgrimage, for love of Whom I have studied and watched, toiled, preached, and taught. Never have I said anything against Thee; but if I have done so, it is through ignorance, and I do not persist in my opinions, and if I have done anything wrong, I leave all to the correction of the Roman Church. It is in this obedience to Her that I depart from this life.

Doctor of the Church par excellence

There is a strange progression in the achievement of titles of honor and status in the theological world. A freshman student begins his pursuit of knowledge simply with his given name. When he graduates from college, some may now call him “Mister.” When he graduates from seminary and passes his trials for ordination, he is granted the title “Reverend” or “Father.” If he continues his education and achieves a doctorate, he is called “Doctor.” If he is fortunate enough to secure a teaching position on a faculty, he must wait to progress to a full professorship. Then he can preface his name with the coveted title of “Professor.” The irony is this: if he makes it really big and achieves a widespread reputation for his learning, he will achieve the highest honor, that of being known simply by his name. We do not usually speak of Professor Barth or of Doctor Calvin or Professor Kung. The leaders in the field of theology are known by their names. We speak of Barth, Bultmann, Brunner, Kung, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, and Rahner. A man doesn’t seem to make it until his title returns to where he started, with his own name.Thomas moves beyond the scope of being Doctor Angelicus to the realm of being the Doctor of the Church par excellence, the Common Doctor of the faithful. Click To Tweet

There is a special sense in which this strange progression reaches its acme with the titular honor paid to Aquinas. He is known not only by his famous last name, but in the world of theology and philosophy is recognized by his first name. No one speaks of Aquinasism. We talk about Calvinism, Lutheranism, Augustinianism, but with Aquinas it is Thomism. One need merely mention the name “Thomas’ and every scholar of theology knows of whom we speak.

Think of all the Thomases there have been in the world. Think even of the Thomases who have been famous in Christendom. There is “Doubting Thomas,” Thomas a Kempis, Sir Thomas More, and a host of others. But only one theological giant is recognized instantly by the simple mention of the name “Thomas.”

In 1879 a papal encyclical was issued in Rome by Leo XIII that praised the contribution of Thomas Aquinas. Leo declared:

Now far above all other Scholastic Doctors towers Thomas Aquinas, their master and prince. Cajetan says truly of him: “So great was his veneration for the ancient and sacred Doctors that he may be said to have gained a perfect understanding of them all.” Thomas gathered together their doctrines like the scattered limbs of a body, and moulded them into a whole. He arranged them in so wonderful an order, and increased them with such great additions, that rightly and deservedly he is reckoned a singular safeguard and glory of the Catholic Church. His intellect was docile and subtle; his memory was ready and tenacious; his life was most holy; and he loved the truth alone. Greatly enriched as he was with the science of God and the science of man, he is likened to the sun; for he warmed the whole earth with the fire of his holiness, and filled the whole earth with the splendor of his teaching. There is no part of philosophy which he did not handle with acuteness and solidity.

In the Code of Canon Law promulgated by Benedict XV, Catholic school teachers were ordered to “treat in every particular the studies of rational philosophy and theology, and the formation of students in these sciences, according to the method, the doctrine, and the principles of the Angelic Doctor, and to adhere religiously to them.” Here Thomism is elevated to a supreme theological role in the church. Thomas moves beyond the scope of being Doctor Angelicus to the realm of being the Doctor of the Church par excellence, the Common Doctor of the faithful.

What is Thomism?

What then, is Thomism, the philosophy attached to the name of Aquinas? Is Thomism a philosophy or a theology? Was Thomas himself primarily an apologist or a theologian? Was he a biblical thinker or a speculative scholar who merely warmed over Aristotle and baptized his pagan philosophy? These are some of the questions that are evoked by the sound of Thomas’ name.

The twentieth century has ushered in a revival of interest in Saint Thomas among Roman Catholic scholars. At the same time there has been a deepening cleavage between Roman Catholic Thomists and Evangelical Protestants. As Vatican Council I in 1870 looked to Protestantism as the fountain from which all modern heresies and distortions of truth flow, so modern Evangelicals have looked to the work of Thomas as being the poison that embittered the springs of truth.

The Protestant apologist, Norman Geisler (who at crucial points is pro-Thomas) is fond of quipping that “the new theme song of Evangelicalism is ‘Should Old Aquinas Be Forgot, and Never Brought to Mind.’” On the other hand the late Francis Schaeffer was sharply critical of Saint Thomas, seeing in his work the foundations of secular humanism. He sees in Thomas’ development of natural theology the magna charta of philosophy. With Thomas, philosophy was liberated from the controls of theology and became autonomous. Once philosophy became autonomous, separated and freed from revelation, it was free to take wings and fly off wherever it wished. Since Aquinas let the bird out of the trap, it has flown in the face of the faith. No longer is philosophy regarded as the handmaiden of Queen Theology but as her rival and possibly her destroyer.

Such an evaluation of Aquinas meets with resistance in some quarters of Protestantism. But the debate goes on. I, for one, am persuaded that the Protestant Church owes a profound debt to Saint Thomas and the benefit of a second glance at his contributions. I remind my Evangelical friends that when Saint Thomas defended the place of natural theology, he appealed primarily to the Apostle Paul and to Romans 1 for its classical foundation. I, for one, am persuaded that the Protestant Church owes a profound debt to Saint Thomas. Click To Tweet

There is a sense in which every Christian owes a profound debt to Saint Thomas. To understand his contribution we must know something of the historical context in which he wrote. To gain a fair reading of any thinker, past or present, we must ask such questions as “What problems was he trying to solve? Why? What were the vibrant issues at stake in his day? What were the dominant controversies?” We know, for example, that throughout church history the development of theology has been prodded in large part by the threat of serious heresies. It was the heretic Marcion who made it necessary for the church to define the canon of sacred scripture. It was the heresy of Arius that provoked the council of Nicaea. It was the distortions of Nestorius and Eutyches that made the Council of Chalcedon necessary. The heat of controversy has been the crucible by which the truth of theology has been made more sharp, more lucid.

The threat to the church that awakened Saint Thomas from his own dogmatic slumber was one of the most serious challenges that Christendom has ever had to endure. Our present condition in the western world makes it a bit difficult to imagine the enormity of the threat. It was the rise and sweeping expansion of Islam that threatened Christianity in the thirteenth century. Our awareness of the threat tends to be limited to the more colorful and adventuresome element of it chronicled in the Crusades. Knights with crosses emblazoned on their chests riding out to free the Holy Land from infidels has a certain romance to it.

Saint Thomas also sought to rescue the Holy Land. Its walls were made of philosophical mortar. His lance was his pen and his coat of armor a monk’s garb. For Thomas the war was a war of ideas, a battle of concepts.

Islamic philosophy had achieved a remarkable synthesis between Islamic religion and the philosophy of Aristotle. The powerful categories of Aristotelian thought became weapons in the arsenal of the two great Arab philosophers, Averroes and Avicenna.The heat of controversy has been the crucible by which the truth of theology has been made more sharp, more lucid. Click To Tweet

The Islamic philosophers produced a system of thought called “integral Aristotelianism.” One of the key points that flowed out of this was the concept of “double truths.” The double truth theory allowed that certain ideas could, at the same time, be true in philosophy and false in theology. It was a remarkable achievement: the Arab philosophers were able to accomplish what no schoolboy could ever do despite the universal desire of schoolboys to do it—to have their cake and eat it too.

The problem with having one’s cake and eating it too is obvious. If I save my cake, I cannot enjoy the taste of it while I am saving it. But if I eat it, then it is gone. I cannot save what is already gone. Seems simple enough. Philosophers, however, like lawyers, often have astonishing powers of making simple matters extremely complex, to the point that they think they can actually transcend the cake eating-saving dilemma. What’s worse is they often have the rhetorical power to convince other people of their magic.

To translate the double truth notion into modern categories would look something like this: a Christian might try to believe on Sunday that he is a creature created in the image of God by the sovereign purposive act of a Divine Being. The rest of the week he believes that he is a cosmic accident, a grown-up germ that emerged fortuitously from the slime. On Wednesdays, however, he adopts a different standpoint. Wednesday is “Double-Truth Day.” At a prayer meeting on Wednesday, the Christian attempts to believe both viewpoints at the same time. One day a week he devotes himself to intellectual schizophrenia. He tries to believe and to live a contradiction. If he enjoys the game he might shoot for a long weekend of it until he gains the ultimate bliss and security of permanent residence in a lunatic asylum.

Aquinas was concerned not only to protect the Christian church from the attacks of Islam, but to protect mankind from intellectual suicide. He insisted that all truth is coherent. Reality is not ultimately chaotic. What is true in philosophy must also be true in theology. What is true in science must also be true in religion. Truth may be analyzed from different perspectives. Various disciplines may have specialized fields of inquiry, but Aquinas insisted that all truth meets at the top.

This cardinal principle of Aquinas presupposes some rather basic, though vitally important, axioms. It is based upon the prior conclusion that there is a God and that he is the creator of this world. The world is a universe. That is, the world is marked by diversity which finds its ultimate unity in God’s sovereign creation and rule. The word “universe” as well as the term “university” comes from this mongrelized union of the two terms “unity” and “diversity.”Various disciplines may have specialized fields of inquiry, but Aquinas insisted that all truth meets at the top Click To Tweet

The double truth theory destroys in principle the fundamental notion of a universe. The universe becomes a multiverse with no ultimate harmony or cohesion. Chaos is ultimate. Truth, as an objective commodity, becomes impossible. Here contradiction may be freely embraced at any time, and every day becomes Double-Truth Day.

One of Francis Schaeffers’ most serious charges against Saint Thomas is the allegation that Thomas separated philosophy and theology. The charge is heard from other quarters as well, that Thomas separated nature and grace. Schaeffer’s lament is that, since the work of Aquinas, philosophy has been liberated from her role as handmaiden to the Queen of the Sciences (Theology) and has now become theology’s chief antagonist.

It is the prerogative of the theologian to make fine distinctions. One of the most important distinctions a theologian can ever make is the distinction between a distinction and a separation. (This is the kind of distinction that yields Excedrin headaches.) There is a crucial difference between distinguishing things and separating them. We distinguish between our bodies and our souls. If we separate them, we die. We distinguish between the two natures of Christ. If we separate them, we fall into gross heresy.

To separate philosophy and theology, nature and grace, was the last thing Thomas Aquinas ever sought to do. It was precisely the issue he was combatting. The double-truth theory separates nature and grace. Such a separation was the dragon Aquinas set out to slay. Aquinas was concerned to distinguish philosophy and theology, nature and grace, not to separate them. He came to bury Averroes, not to praise him.Aquinas was concerned to distinguish philosophy and theology, nature and grace, not to separate them. Click To Tweet

Aquinas maintained consistently that ultimately there is no conflict between nature and grace. His posture was that grace does not destroy nature but fulfills it. What God reveals in the Bible does not cancel out what he reveals in nature. To be sure it adds to the knowledge we can glean from a study of this world, but it does not contradict it.

Thomas taught that there are certain truths that can be discovered in nature that are not found in the Bible. To use a modern example, we cannot discover a blueprint for the circulatory system of the bloodstream in the Bible. Second Chronicles tells us very little about microchip computers. On the other hand, science can never teach us of the Trinity or of God’s plan of redemption. The work of the Holy Spirit in the regeneration of a human soul cannot be detected with a microscope or x-ray machine.

Saint Thomas was simply stating what should be obvious, that we learn some things from nature that we can’t learn from the Bible and we learn some things from the Bible that we cannot learn from nature. The two sources of information can never be ultimately contradictory. If they seem to contradict each other, then a warning buzzer should sound in our heads to alert us that we have made an error somewhere. Either we have misinterpreted nature, or misinterpreted the Bible, or perhaps we have misinterpreted both. When the modern Evangelical rejects natural theology in toto and adopts fideism as his standpoint, he becomes guilty of the very thing for which Aquinas is accused; he becomes guilty of separating nature and grace. Click To Tweet

So far, so good. What has really raised the hackles of many modern Evangelicals is what Thomas said next. Thomas insisted that in addition to the specific information one can learn from nature and the information found only in the Bible, there is a field of knowledge that overlaps. There are truths that Saint Thomas called “mixed articles.” The mixed articles refer to truths that can be learned either by nature or by grace.

The most controversial of the mixed articles is the issue of the existence of God. Clearly the Bible teaches that there is a God. Aquinas argues, however, that nature also teaches there is a God. There can be, therefore, a kind of natural theology. Natural theology means that nature yields a knowledge of God.

The question of natural theology and of proofs of God’s existence drawn from nature has been a raging controversy in the twentieth century. We recall, for example, Karl Barth’s rigorous rejection of natural theology in his debate with Emil Brunner. Theology in general and evangelical theology in particular has reacted severely to natural theology, seeing in it an intrusion of Greek philosophy into the household of faith. The dominant approach in our day is that of some variety of fideism. Fideism, which means literally “faithism,” maintains that God can be known only by faith. God’s existence cannot be established by philosophy. Nature yields no theology. The heavens may declare the glory of God, but such glory is never perceived except through the eyeglasses of faith.

Thomas appealed to the Bible for his defense of natural theology. He carefully reminded the Christians of his day that the Bible not only teaches us that there is a God, but that same Bible also teaches us that it is not the only source of that information. The Bible clearly and unambiguously teaches that men in fact not only can know, but do know, that God exists from his self-revelation in nature. Thomas simply reminded the church what the Apostle Paul labored to teach in the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans.

When the modern Evangelical rejects natural theology in toto and adopts fideism as his standpoint, he becomes guilty of the very thing for which Aquinas is accused; he becomes guilty of separating nature and grace.

What is at stake here?

What is at stake here?

Aquinas understood that fallen men and women will repeatedly seek to use the tools of philosophy and science against the truth of the Bible. However, he refused to surrender nature to the pagan. He refused to negotiate philosophy and science. Fideism is a policy of retreat. It hides behind a fortress of faith while surrendering reason to the pagan. It separates nature and grace in the worst possible way. The church becomes a cultural dropout; it seeks the sanctuary of the Christian ghetto. It seeks to reserve a safe place for the practice of worship, prayer, Bible study, and the like. In the meantime, art, music, literature, science, the university, and philosophy are surrendered to the pagan. If a Christian happens to be laboring in those endeavors, he is politely asked to live by a double-truth standard. Like the scientist who can’t decide whether light is a wave or a particle, he is asked to believe that it is a “wavicle” or to believe that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday light is a wave; on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday it is a particle. (Of course on Sunday it rests.) We need an Aquinas. We need a titanic thinker who will not abandon truth for safety. Click To Tweet

We are acutely aware that the church in our day has staggered under the assault of philosophers and scientists. There are few philosophers who see their task as being servants to the truth of God. There are few scientists today who see their task as “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.” Secular universities are not known for their gentle nurturing of Christian faith. The popular music charts do little to promote the kingdom of God. Modern art and literature are not communicating the beauty of holiness. No wonder that the church seeks a safe place of solace far removed from the battleground of culture.

We need an Aquinas. We need a titanic thinker who will not abandon truth for safety. We need men and women who are willing to compete with secularists in defense of Christ and of his truth. In this regard, the dumb ox of Aquino was heroic.

*This article originally appeared in Chosen Vessels: Portraits of Ten Outstanding Christian Men (Michigan: Servant Publications, 1985).

R.C. Sproul

Dr. R.C. Sproul was founder of Ligonier Ministries, founding pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Fla., first president of Reformation Bible College, and executive editor of Tabletalk magazine. His radio program, Renewing Your Mind, is still broadcast daily on hundreds of radio stations around the world and can also be heard online. He was author of more than one hundred books, including The Holiness of God, Chosen by God, and Everyone’s a Theologian. He was recognized throughout the world for his articulate defense of the inerrancy of Scripture and the need for God’s people to stand with conviction upon His Word.

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