A Defense Of Aquinas’ Writing On “The Light Of Natural Knowledge”

The problem is most apparent in Oliphint’s highly selective use of Aquinas’ commentary on John 1:9, which leaves out the portions that undermine his argument. Aquinas indicates that human beings are enlightened by “the light of natural knowledge,” which insofar as it is light is such by participation in the “true light,” which is the Word. He adds, “If any one is not enlightened, it is due to himself, because he turns from the light that enlightens.”10 Aquinas also distinguishes this true light, given to all by God, from which human beings turn away, from the “false light” which “the philosophers prided themselves on having,” citing Romans 1:21.11 Despite what Aquinas says quite clearly, Oliphint concludes, “We should make it clear here that Thomas does not think that the ‘enlightening’ of which John speaks necessarily includes divine truth or content” (p. 15). Read More»
Richard A. Muller | “Misrepresenting Aquinas with Prejudice: Why Reformed Theology is Not Sectarian” | July 2, 2022


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  1. I have an interesting challenge, where does Calvin depart from Aquinas? I see the defense for Aquinas as so firm that something must be getting missed, or the defense of Aquinas is so charitable (unlike CVT who may have been uncharitable or no nonsense, depending on how we are receiving him) that areas of disagreement are extinguished. So are we wholly Thomist, unbeknownst to us, due to our own ignorance and misrepresentation? Or is Aquinas sorely lacking somewhere? If so how would defenders of Aquinas connect the dots? Where are the holes in his theology and how do his errors/limits contradict the areas in which he is sound? I’m sensing a bit of cognitive dissonance in those who defend him. We can’t gloss over him in one area unless we expound on how one error has to spill into another area.

    • AJ,

      It’s not a matter of defending Thomas, it’s a matter of telling the truth about the past as best we can. I teach and write history (mostly history of ideas). In the Reformed world in the 19th and 20th century lots of figures from the pre-Reformation and post-Reformation world took a beating at the hands of various kinds of Reformed folk. Why that happened is a complex story but the very short version is that history was not very well done in our circles for a long time. It wasn’t very important at Old Princeton frankly and it wasn’t always very important even at Old Westminster. Why that was is also an interesting story. As a consequence, a lot of us imbibed a story that just didn’t account for the facts. It wasn’t grounded in primary sources. In the case of those who were influenced by CVT it was colored by a way of reading the past that is sometimes known as idealism. So, CVT had no compunctions about putting actual Christians in the same idealogical box as Immanuel Kant. That, frankly, was criminal. There needed to be a re-appraisal. Under the influence of Heiko Oberman (and his student David Steinmetz), Richard Muller and others began to question the received story in the 1970s and 80s. I started my professional academic work in 1993 and one of the first things my tutor told me was “Read Muller.” So I did and I began to realize that the received story about Reformed orthodoxy had little to do with the facts. My own work in primary sources showed me that there had developed a fairly significant discontinuity, in some important ways, between what I had been taught and what I was seeing in the primary sources from the 16th and early 17th centuries. I tried to explain some of this in Recovering the Reformed Confession. See also Trueman and Clark, ed. Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment

      In my courses I try to be appreciatively critical of Thomas. First, I learned that the Thomas about whom I read in CVT and Schaefer et al. doesn’t exist. This is the great problem with Scott’s portrayal of Thomas and the principal reason his book has been panned by so many scholars. No one who actually knows Thomas finds it credible because it isn’t.

      This is important for a variety reasons. For one thing, Reformed Christianity isn’t a sect that emerged de novo in the 16th or 17th centuries. It was rooted in the Fathers and the medieval traditions in important ways. That mattered to our forefathers and it should matter to us. For another thing, we can hardly understand Reformed theology properly without understanding the sources that influenced it. Prior to the 80s and 90s, a lot of Protestants, even some Reformation scholars just didn’t study the medieval period much at all. They didn’t read medieval sources. We lost Latin. We lost contact with the Great Christian Tradition. This was even more true among the Baptists and broad Evangelicals. That’s why we see a reaction among them. Biblicism (see RRC) was rampant in the Reformed world when I entered.

      Do we agree with Thomas on justification? No! I am convinced that but for the influence of neo-Platonism (via Pseudo-Dionysius) Thomas might have avoided certain significant problems but because of that influence, he misconstrues nature and grace and analogy. CVT was a more consistently analogical theologian but Thomas wanted to be an analogical theologian. He tried but Ps-Dionysius wouldn’t let him. If affected his soteriology and his anthropology but on predestination and reprobation Thomas was thoroughly Augustinian. His Five Ways were grossly misrepresented in the 20th century. He wasn’t a rationalist in the way CVT and others said. His rationalism was more like Gordon Clark’s than that of the Modernists. CVT didn’t distinguish.

      Thomas is a friend. I learn from him. I disagree with with him but I learn from him because he has a lot to teach me.

      • On Calvin in particular, his relations to Thomas are complicated. It’s not clear how much of Thomas he actually read. He probably read some of the Summa Theologica while he was in Paris but he was not a theological student. He was a classics student. There wasn’t a copy of the Summa in Geneva until after Calvin died. He does make some references to Thomas in the Institutes but it’s not clear how well he knew Thomas.

        Did you read the essay I linked for you on Calvin’s view of natural law? There’s an area where he differed somewhat with Thomas. They both had the highest view of Scripture. They probably differ on the role of ecclesiastical authority but they agree more than they disagree about the function of natural revelation. Calvin agreed more with Thomas than he did/does with the modern “Reformed” who deny natural revelation and natural law. Calvin did not receive the apocryphal books (though, unlike most moderns, he actually read them) and Thomas did.

        In hermeneutics Calvin was a humanist. In some ways they probably agreed more than most people think. Thomas was part of a “back to the Bible” movement though Thomas was a bi-perspectivalist. He looked at everything through the lens of his nature/grace distinction. Calvin certainly distinguished nature and grace but for him, grace renews fallen human nature, not creation per se.

        He obviously differed with Thomas on justification and, I think, on the question of “deification.” What did Thomas mean by it? It seems like he means more by it than even the Greeks mean by theosis. I think Calvin’s account of the fall and the effects of sin is different from Thomas’.

        His view of ecclesiology is obviously different, as is he view of the sacraments. Calvin rejected the five ecclesiastical sacraments.

        Their eschatologies, however, I suppose (not that I’ve worked on this) are probably not much different.

  2. As an ex-RCC, I used to debate Catholics whose tent was so big that I could barely distinguish Roman Catholicism from religious humanism, regardless of certain foundation tenets (at least on paper). See the current Pope….

    The road back to Rome is pretty broad.

    • Rome is a huge tent but it’s important not to assume that Thomas = Rome. I know lots of people do that. I used to do that. There are reasons for it but Trent didn’t follow Thomas consistently and Vatican II didn’t follow Thomas in important ways.

      Rome = the Catechism, the conciliar canons and decrees, the papal bulls etc. One can find Romanist theologians saying any number of things. Sometimes they agree with the church, sometimes they don’t. What matters, ultimately, is what the Roman communion confesses and decrees.

  3. Unlettered theology audodidacts may safely ponder in our hearts an increase in admiration for Thomas and a decrease for Van Til as we actually sit down and read their works…

    • Kent,

      Let me be clear, CVT made a truly valuable contribution to Christian apologetics. He also preserved an absolutely vital Reformed truth, i.e., the Creator/creature distinction. His vision of analogical theology is that of Franciscus Junius. My critique focuses on his history of theology which was, in some ways, understandable. He was a philosopher-theologian, not a historian. Frankly, Old Princeton did not do a great job at history. Old Westminster didn’t invest a lot in history. It was mostly background noise. Further, Van Til was educated (in his PhD program) in idealism, which is not an excellent foundation for studying history. He put people in boxes in which they just did not belong but let’s not throw the orthodoxy baby out with the idealist bathwater.

  4. Thanks Scott:

    CVT is very much “up there”, just not as high as once was.

    All who have expressed their thoughts in written words have flaws, unrepentant heresy and childish game-playing are deal breakers.

    I’m in that group cursed/blessed with a hunger for reading theology at my leisure; I cannot discuss it with those who sneer at this hobby, and I can’t enter the deeper waters of the lettered and career discussions.

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