Aquinas: A Shaky Foundation

November 07, 2012

by Scott Oliphint

Monday, January 17, 1994, 4:31 a.m., will be forever etched in my mind. I had arrived in Los Angeles at 2:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, January 16. A room was reserved for me near downtown Los Angeles in a nice hotel, tenth floor. I preached in a nearby church later that morning and went to bed early that evening, with a full schedule for the rest of the week. I was awakened at 4:31 a.m. by the Northridge earthquake. My hotel was only 10 miles from the epicenter. I had never felt such a massive and towering building being twisted and shaken like it was built of papier-māché. As a few thousand people scurried down to the lobby for further instructions, it was clear to everyone that no place was safe. Aftershocks continued, and the best one could hope for was that the building would not come down on top of us.

What became clear to me throughout the day, as electricity was restored and reports poured in about death and destruction, was that no matter how nice and opulent the room I was in, once the ground gives way, all of the nice trappings of the room, the building, the entire neighborhood, were nothing more than weapons of destruction. If the ground fell in, so would everything else, bringing certain death and devastation.

Thomas Aquinas is among the top philosophical theologians in the history of the church. His genius cannot be doubted. His significant influence extends, not simply to the Roman Catholic Church, but into many aspects of the Reformation as well. Like so many in church history, Thomas wears neither a black hat nor a white hat, but a grey hat. How dark or light the grey is depends on a complex multitude of factors.

Aquinas’s significant influence extends, not simply to the Roman Catholic Church, but into many aspects of the Reformation as well.

If we use the analogy of the Northridge earthquake to think about the structure of Thomas’s philosophical theology, we can, perhaps, present a few general points worthy of consideration. First, Richard Muller makes the following important observation with respect to Reformed prolegomena:

These early Reformed statements concerning theological presuppositions focus, virtually without exception, on the problem of the knowledge of God given the fact not only of human finitude but also of human sin. The critique leveled by the Reformation at medieval theological presuppositions added a soteriological dimension to the epistemological problem. Whereas the medieval doctors had assumed that the fall affected primarily the will and its affections and not the reason, the Reformers assumed also the fallenness of the rational faculty: a generalized or “pagan” natural theology, according to the Reformers, was not merely limited to nonsaving knowledge of God—it was also bound in idolatry. This view of the problem of knowledge is the single most important contribution of the early Reformed writers to the theological prolegomena of orthodox Protestantism. Indeed, it is the doctrinal issue that most forcibly presses the Protestant scholastics toward the modification of the medieval models for theological prolegomena (Muller, PRRD, 1.108, my emphasis).

Muller is saying not simply that the Reformation took more seriously the biblical teaching on the effects of sin; much more is entailed. Because of a weak view of sin’s effects on us, there were some central and significant foundational (i.e., epistemological) issues that came out of the medieval period and needed substantial revision during the time of the Reformation. Radical (i.e., root) modification was needed if issues of the doctrine of revelation (and other doctrines) were going to be “re-formed.”

There were some significant foundational (i.e., epistemological) issues that came out of the medieval period and needed substantial revision during the time of the Reformation.

Applying this to our analogy (and assuming the “medieval models” of which Muller speaks include Thomas), the ground upon which the Thomistic structure was built was shaky, at best. Whatever was adopted and adapted from the medieval models by those in the Reformed tradition had to be removed from the sand on which they were built, cleansed of their sandy residue, and placed on a solid foundation.

New Foundation

This is no mean critique, and it is a dangerous and potentially destructive task to move through a philosophical-theological system and attempt to bring over whatever is conducive to the newly revised and erected foundation of Reformed prolegomena. As with the earthquake, the rooms in the hotel were all finely appointed, richly furnished, and meticulously decorated. The only problem was, if the foundation gave way, those rooms were unable to carry out their intended function, no matter how appealing they might look on the surface.

Suppose, however, that one was able to move through the hotel, pick out a few of the best rooms, and move them from their weak and fallen foundation to one that would support them. Would the rooms themselves look that different? Perhaps not. They might look, for the most part, just as they did when they were on shaky ground. However, once moved, the question would have to be asked as to how, and to what extent, those rooms could be supported by their new foundation. It might be possible, for example, that the material used to furnish the rooms would be too heavy for its now-new foundation. It might be that the foundation would, even if subtly, alter the basic framework of each of the rooms so that they would need to be re-structured. Whatever the case, changing the foundation of the rooms, no matter how it might look on the surface, is, by definition, a fundamental change.

We must recognize that one of the central principia of the Reformation—the doctrine of revelation—required that everything brought over from medieval philosophical theology had to be re-tooled.

There are a host of things Aquinas wrote and produced that are worthy of much consideration and thought for any Christian interested in such things. The sheer volume of what he was able to do, given its depth and theological concerns, will undoubtedly serve the Christian church in a variety of ways. However, in the almost superhuman proliferation of such material, there will, almost inevitably and in hindsight, be need of careful and perhaps substantial revision. The “rooms” that Thomas built may look exquisite, but, since the foundation is sinking sand, they can only be transferred to a solid foundation carefully, and with a view toward possible structural and material transformation. Anyone who would attempt, for example, simply to accept certain “rooms” without noticing or transforming the foundation on which all of the rooms are built, will be floating along in rooms that are either ungrounded or on shaky ground, and thus will be in danger of such rooms caving in and bringing the whole edifice to ruin.

Firmly Set

There is so much that could be said about this that anything said in an article of this length will not do the genius of Thomas justice. But to move from an earthquake analogy to real content, we must recognize that one of the central principia of the Reformation—the doctrine of revelation—required that everything brought over from medieval philosophical theology, if it were going to be coherent, had to be re-tooled. (As an aside, I happen to believe as well that the other principium of the Reformation—the doctrine of God—was itself not sufficiently re-tooled in light of Reformed theology, but that’s an article for another time.)

So the challenge is this: from a Protestant and Reformed perspective, whatever one seeks to adopt and adapt from Thomas and medieval philosophical theology, those tenets and notions must be thoroughly cleansed of their sandy foundation if they are to be placed on theological solid ground. There must be a clear and acute awareness of the methodological and foundational presuppositions entailed in those tenets and notions if such are going to be removed and relocated. This kind of work is anything but simple, and it requires a firm, unwavering commitment to the two Protestant principia as well as a good bit of historical distance. The danger is that the latter is easier to apply than the former.


This article was originally posted on The Gospel Coalition.

Scott Oliphint

Dr. Oliphint (PhD, Westminster) is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at WTS.

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