013 Should Old Aquinas Be Forgot?


While in graduate school I encountered, providentially I think, while exploring the University of Oklahoma’s library and reading things which appealed to me, scholars such as Jacques Maritain, Joseph Piper, and Etienne Gilson, through whom I came to appreciate St. Thomas Aquinas and the Thomistic approach to philosophy. The longer I live and teach, the more sound I find Aquinas’ “moderate realism” and his common sense Christian approach to philosophy.

I’m secured in my admiration of Aquinas and his Summa Theologica by this declaration of Flannery O’Connor, one of the greatest post-WWII writers: “So I couldn’t make any judgment on the Summa, except to say this: I read it every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during the process and say, ‘Turn off that light. It’s late,’ I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, ‘On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,’ or some such thing. In any case, I feel I can personally guarantee that St. Thomas loved God because for the life of me I cannot help loving St. Thomas” (“Letter to A.,” 9 August 1955, Collected Works, p. 945).

Without question Thomas Aquinas is one of the handful of theologians who’ve most shaped theological developments in the Christian Church. Yet anyone who’s tried to read St. Thomas’ Summa Theo-logica (written to prepare students to properly study Scripture!) will testify to some difficulty in plowing through it.

Mainly this stems, I suspect, from its imposing length–several thousand pages in some editions–which easily intimidates any neophyte! It’s also difficult to understand the often obscure thinkers whose “objections” Thomas answers as part of the process of disputation which structures the work’s presentation. Medieval students learned through engaging in rigorous debates–a style of learning rather foreign to many of us “moderns,” who are more at ease listen to a series of speeches or reading a series of monographs.

Still more, to be quite honest, the level of thinking is far more elevated and intellectually demanding than most of the material even we academicians ordinarily wrestle with! Those who dismiss the Middle Ages as a period of lackluster inquiry have rarely tangled with the likes of St. Anselm, Duns Scotus, and Thomas Aquinas!

Finally, though Thomas’s thought is, in the final analysis, almost always crystal-clear, it takes patient reading and re-reading to probe the depths of reality he explores. He’s one of the most coherent, understandable theologians, but he’s not at all interested in stylistic devices to entertain us! The Summa will never get a hearing on Saturday Night Live . . . or PBS, for that matter!

Consequently, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, Peter Kreeft, provides us a great service in his recently edited and annotated A Summa of the Summa: The Essential Philosophical Passages of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica Edited and Explained for Beginners (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1990).

He makes no effort to include all sections, excluding the many parts which are purely theological. He eliminates most of the “objections” which certainly clarify the issues discussed but are often irrelevant to our concerns. He selects those excerpts which best introduce the reader to the substance of St. Thomas. For some readers, one hopes, Kreeft’s Summa will whet an appetite for the original work.

Kreeft clearly admires his subject. “St. Thomas Aquinas is certainly one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived (to my mind he is the greatest),” he writes, “for at least eight reasons: truth, common sense, practicality, clarity, profundity, orthodoxy, medievalism, and modernity” (p. 11).

Though Aquinas’ works abound with a multitude of quotations, ranging from the classical to the world of his own contemporaries, he had little interest in restating and comparing people’s opinions. Unlike many contemporary philosophers since Wittgenstein, he had no interest in “language games.” Philosophy is truly the “love of wisdom,” not a pleasant academic activity one pursues while in the office. He hungered for truth . . . the essence of things which language points toward. “The study of philosophy,” he rightly insisted, “is not the study of what men have opined, but of what is the truth.” Rigorously, resolutely he sought to see and clarify what is true.

And he found truth to be graphically down-to-earth and credible. He dismissed professional skeptics, whose verbal puzzles defy resolution, as misguided folks out-of-touch with an eminently touchable reality. If you’re like me and have read Nietzsche or Hegel, Heidegger or Sartre, you’ve probably come away with the impression that these men are incredibly learned and intelligent . . . yet at least some of what they say is truly incredible!

I recently read a highly erudite essay in The Christian Scholar by a young professor espousing “deconstructionism” for evangelicals. It was a prima donna performance! I was impressed! But I also wondered, as he talked about our “social construction of reality” and our self-selected “stories” which provide meanings of some sort, if he’d ever climbed Mt. Whitney or worked on a farm or run a marathon or hoed a garden or touched the unyielding reality of a world beyond the soaring flights of his imagination and verbal gymnastics! Well, if you like sober, down-to-earth folks like Aristotle, you’ll find Thomas congenial.

He’s also congenial for those of us committed to historical Orthodoxy. Though not all Protestants would share the decision of the Council of Trent, placing St. Thomas’s Summa second only to the Bible as a source of theological authority for Catholics, all Christians can find wellsprings of Orthodox doctrine pooled in the aquifers of Aquinas. That Richard Hooker, the most formative Anglican theologian, drank deeply of Aquinas helps us better grasp the thought of later Anglicans such as John Wesley and C.S. Lewis.

“Finally,” says Kreeft, “St. Thomas is important for us today precisely because of our lack. Timeless truth is always timely, of course, but some aspects of truth are especially needed at some times, and it seems that our times badly need seven Thomistic syntheses: (1) of faith and reason, (2) of the Biblical and the classical, the Judeo-Christian and the Greco-Roman heritages, (3) of the ideals of clarity and profundity, (4) of common sense and technical sophistication, (5) of theory and practice, (6) of an understanding, intuitive vision and a demanding, accurate logic, and (7) of the one and the many,m a cosmic unity or ‘big picture’ and carefully sorted out distinctions” (pp. 13-14).

Encouraging the beginner to read one brief section a day–only a few pages in this book–Kreeft also provides helpful footnotes and a glossary of terms which enable one to develop some understanding of “Thomism.” Though I’ve read lots of studies of Aquinas, as well as most of the Summa in its unabridged fullness, I found Kreeft’s helps most helpful to me in the course of digesting this classic.

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I stole the title for this newsletter (“Should Old Aquinas Be Forgot”) from the cover of Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal, by Norman L. Geisler (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, c. 1991). The author’s a prolific (more than 30 books), controversial (my friend Frank Carver gets hypertension at the sound of Geisler’s name), peripatetic (every time I hear of him he’s affiliated with yet another school of some sort) scholar who resides somewhere on the fundamentalist fringes (he’s a graduate and one-time faculty member of Dallas Theological Seminary) of Evangelicalism! Yet however one regards him, Geisler’s a brilliant guy whose work’s worth considering.

Quite honestly, I mention Geisler’s work on St. Thomas not for its intrinsic worth but for the mere fact someone like him would write it. Better studies of Thomas Aquinas have been written. (If you’re curious consult works by Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Josef Pieper, M.-D. Chenu, or (best of all) G.K. Chesterton).

Geisler’s study of Thomas deals adequately with the subject, though more in the fashion of a professor’s lecture notes than a fully-digested exposition. But what interests me is the harmony Geisler finds between St. Thomas and the kind of American “evangelicalism” he and R.C. Sproul represent. Sproul, incidentally, says of Geisler’s work: “This is ‘must reading’ for every thinking Christian. I am thrilled by this careful analysis of St. Thomas.”

Geisler glances at a whole host of American evangelicals who have disparaged Aquinas and finds them largely ill-informed and off-target in their criticism. I thoroughly agree: statements by the likes of Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark, Francis Schaeffer, and Arthur Nash illustrate some fundamental misunderstandings of “The Angelic Doctor.” I always wondered, when reading some of Francis Schaeffer’s assaults on Aquinas years ago, if he’d actually read him or was just using some of his seminary professors’ lecture caricatures as the final word on St.Thomas.

A hardy handful of evangelicals, Geisler says, “a strong but too often silent minority [e.g. John H. Gerstner, Arvin Vos, R.C. Sproul] among us who are directly dependent upon Aquinas for our basic theology, philosophy, and/or apologetics” (p. 14), must more openly espouse Aquinas’ views. In this they obviously imitate C.S. Lewis, finding Aquinas a fertile field for healthy theological vineyards.

Geisler argues there are eight contributions Aquinas can make today. “First, Aquinas’s view of nature and interpretation of Scripture is helpful in the current debate on inerrancy and hermeneutics” (p. 21). A Fundamentalist Aquinas is not, but he has a lofty appreciation for Scripture’s divine inspiration.

“Second, Aquinas can help us build a solid theistic basis for doing historical apologetics” (p. 21). “Third, Aquinas, can provide a philosophical answer to the growing influence of the finite god of process theology” (p. 21).

“Fourth, Thomistic analogy seems to be the only adequate answer to the problem of religious language” (p. 22). We must refer to God either univocally, equivocally, or analogically, and the final option is the only one suitable for Christian theology. “Fifth, the value of Aquinas in overcoming the separation of the God of reason and revelation” (p. 22) cannot be ignored. “Sixth, Aquinas makes a major contribution in the area of epistemology,” (p. 22), for his sophisticated distinctions between the active and passive intellects, his balanced emphasis on both empirical learning and rational thinking, provide a viable modern theory of knowledge.

“Seventh, Aquinas’s answer to the relation of faith and reason is a surprising synthesis of the best elements of rationalism and existentialism” (p. 22), for both faith and reason must be properly blended in a viable theology. “Finally, Aquinas addresses reconciliation of human freedom and divine sovereignty . . . the nature of divine and human law . . . and the problem of evil” (p. 22).

After a brief discussion of Aquinas’ life and an overview of his thought, Geisler considers such subjects as “The Bible,” “Faith and Reason,” “God’s Nature,” “Evil,” and “Law and Morality.” If you’re familiar with Thomas, Geisler’s not too difficult to follow. If you’re not, however, I suspect his often abstract and abbreviated presentations will leave you with lots of unanswered questions. So you’d be wise simply to read Aquinas first and then turn to Geisler’s interpretation of him!

In my opinion, we who consider John Wesley and James Arminius our theological mentors should take note of Geisler’s appreciation for Aquinas, since in many ways he’s one of our finest forebears! If we’re neither Calvinistic nor Pelagian when debating the question concerning the freedom of the will, we’ll find useful Thomas’ defensible middle ground. If we believe grace perfects nature, as we suggest when we preach holiness, we side with Thomas, not Luther or Calvin. When we rely upon the Bible as the fully-inspired Word of God, we discover it’s Thomas, not Barth or Bultmann, who supports us. So if someone like Geisler, operating out of the Reformed perspective, finds Aquinas worthwhile, how much more should we Wesleyans!

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As I earlier mentioned, I encountered the work of Jacques Maritain 30 years ago and have over the years read many of his books. I just finished studying, in conjunction with my class in Ethics, one of his more massive scholarly works, Moral Philosophy: An historical and critical survey of the great systems (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, c. 1964).

In his first paragraph Maritain announces: “The present work is devoted to the historical and critical examination of a certain number of great systems which are, in my opinion, the most significant ones with respect to the development and the adventures of moral philosophy, and those which it is most important to consider for a work of prise de conscience and intellectual renewal to which our age seems called, at least in the eyes of a few who still care for wisdom” (p. ix).

In “Part One: The Adventures of Reason,” Maritain considers the great Ancient, Medieval, and Enlightenment ethicists whose conversation so illuminates the study of moral philosophy. He finds much to admire, while always pointing out glaring flaws, in the positions taken by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and Epicureans.

They raised the right questions, they explored the apparent options, and they took seriously their calling to reason toward truth. But they failed to discover how to achieve what all ethicists urge us to achieve: transcending a purely physical, human existence and becoming what we really ought to be!

Into that ancient world came Christianity, with a different (and, to Maritain, far better) philosophy. Medieval Christians understood wisdom to be something far more than a purely human attainment. “Medieval Christianity was dominated by the law of descending motion of supreme wisdom to which we called attention in speaking of the Old Testament, and knew its name–it is the law of the Incarnation. Thomas Aquinas formulated it in a text of limitless significance: ‘In the mystery of the Incarnation,’ he says, ‘the descent of the divine plenitude into human nature is of greater import than the ascent of human nature, taken as pre-existent, toward Divinity'” (p. 74; quoting Sum. theol., III, 34, 1, ad 1).

Beyond Plato’s hunger for the transcendent Good, beyond Aristotle’s desire for Happiness, Christianity “has its supreme archetype in a subsistent Good which is a loving Personality–three Persons in a single nature, one of whom has been incarnated, [so that] moral reflection now understands definitively and explicitly that the Good is something other than Happiness, and that the first demand and the first condition of moral rectitude is to love the Good more than Happiness” (p. 77).

Medieval Scholastics such as St Thomas lived in a theocentric world. Only as things are rightly related to God do they move smoothly. Only as men and women find their final End in God do they live with meaning and purpose. So only an ethic which acknowledges God as the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, truly suits the human species. Both ancient and modern thinkers routinely betray a longing for some transcendent source of values, some truly final end, but the humanistic limitations imposed on their systems keeps them locked within an inadequate vision of Reality.

From the Medieval World, Maritain jumps to Immanuel Kant, the last of the great ethicists who operated within a largely intact Christian worldview, though he does in fact take some crucial steps away from it. With his concern for disinterestedness and duty, Kant embraced some of the traditional Christian concern for unselfish love and responsibility.

Yet, importantly, Kant effectively displaced God from any role in the process. His ethic “makes out of God an appendix to morality, not its foundation” (p. 102). Finding within one’s own mind a “categorical imperative,” able to reason what one ought or ought not do, Kantian ethics encourages the love of moral law but not of God, the love of treating others rightly but not the love of others.

With Kant, Maritain believes, we step over a threshold and thenceforth must deal with what he calls “the great illusions.” These include Hegel’s Idealism, Marx’s Dialectical Materialism, and Auguste Comte’s Positivism. These highly influential thinkers are “exponents of modern anthropocentrism whose work has seriously disorganized moral knowledge, not only among philosophers but also in broad sectors of the common conscience” (p. 353). More recent philosophers, such as Sartre and Dewey, offer little more, in Maritain’s opinion, though he grants them the courtesy of serious consideration.

Henri Bergson, however, in his Two Sources of Morality and Religion, offers Maritain a congenial 20th Century figure. As a young man, Maritain was profoundly affected by Bergson; though he never became a disciple he remained an admirer of perhaps the leading French philosopher of his era (ca. 1890-1930).

Though more famed for his “vitalism,” delineated in Creative Evolution, Bergson late in life published Two Sources of Morality and Religion, in which he argued that there are “open” and “closed” systems of morality and religion, and that the mystics and saints who incarnate the “open” approaches reveal humanity at its highest and best. This Bergsonian insight prompts Maritain to suggest that Bergson has explored modernity’s philosophical terrain and discovered the need for an authentic morality, a supra-morality, which in fact requires divine assistance, what we would call imparted grace.

Apart from scattered sections revealing his own Thomism, Maritain mainly explains and critiques significant figures in the history of philosophy. He clearly finds little constructive in “modern” philosophy since Kant, but he makes it clear (in the bulk of the book) that he’s read and considered its agenda.

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