Aquinas gets this wrong, and much confusion follows

There are a lot of moving parts in this discussion, I admit. Here we have a discussion about a concept, in which the discussion moves from Aristotle to Aquinas to Scotus to Luther to Calvin to Turretin and Warfield.

In my recent blog post, Luther’s Theology of the Cross and Metaphysics, I cited Muller as saying:

One of the elements of late medieval Scotist and nominalist theology that had a profound impact on Luther was its denial of any analogy between God and man and its consequent recognition of the impossibility of formulating a rational metaphysic concerning God (emphasis added). All knowledge of God must rest on authoritative testimony, primarily on that of Scripture.

After describing briefly that Luther “denied any recourse of theology to an analogia entis between God and man and insisted on the necessity of scriptural revelation”, Muller goes on to say:

“Calvin, similarly, allows a glorious revelation of God in creation that ought to be understood by reason—but argues that human beings are so corrupted by sin that apart from salvation in Christ and the saving form of revelation given in Scripture, knowledge of God remains inaccessible to them (emphasis added) Calvin also distinguishes between the eternal Word and Wisdom of God and the revealing Word given forth in the words of the prophets, the latter being accommodated to human ways of knowing.”

Based on interactions in the comments with Stephen, I went back and looked up what Calvin said in his Institutes Book 1, Chapters 1-5.

Muller’s word “similarly” refers to a movement that I’ll describe basically with these two citations from Calvin (given in Hall and Lillback, “A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes”, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008, in K. Scott Oliphint, Chapter 2, “A Primal and Simple Knowledge (1.1-5), p. 35):

Where Paul teaches that what is to be known of God is made plain from the creation of the universe, he does not signify such a manifestation as men’s discernment can comprehend; but, rather, shows it not to go farther than to render them inexcusable… (Institutes 1.5.14).

And …

Although we lack the natural ability to mount up unto the pure and clear knowledge of God, all excuse is cut off because the fault of dullness is within us… (Institutes 1.5.15).

The issue that Muller is talking about is not that we know from nature that God exists. The issue is, “does fallen man gain enough knowledge of God in order to build a natural theology from that which is known from nature?”

Oliphint continues:

Without question, the most controversial subject of Calvin’s discussion in this section is that of natural theology. The controversy reached its peak in the twentieth century, in the debate between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. The crux of the debate can be seen in one quote from Barth:

Brunner’s interpretation of Calvin has one fault which vitiates everything. He has, with amazing cold blood and consistency, left out the very important brackets within which Calvin always speaks of the natural knowledge of God. They are the expression si integer stetisset Adam [if Adam had remained upright—from Institutes 1.2.1].

In other words, Barth’s understanding of Calvin was that the natural knowledge of God was obliterated at the fall. Since Adam did not remain upright, there can be no natural knowledge of God.

Numerous problems arise in this understanding of Calvin, not the least of which is that Barth seems to make no distinction between natural revelation and natural theology. The distinction is a crucial one, and one that must be kept in mind here. Natural revelation is that which God gives to man. As Calvin notes, it is that which God implants in us. Natural theology is that which man does with that natural revelation that God implants.

Later Oliphint says:

For Calvin, … , there is no natural theology on the part of an unbeliever that serves to do anything but render him without excuse. Every unbelieving attempt to construct a true natural theology will inevitably lead to condemnation (p. 38).

This is an important concept when it comes to metaphysics, which is what caught my eye in the first place (Muller speaks of “the impossibility of formulating a rational metaphysic concerning God” based on anything other than “authoritative testimony, primarily on that of Scripture” (Muller p. 223).)

In my mind, I have been coming to the conclusion that “Aquinas is the problem” – (see some of my “Fudging Aristotle” blog posts below.)

Outlining Aquinas’s method, Ralph McInerney, for example, makes the following claim:

So too a Christian sets out to show that God can be known to exist from the world around us, prodded, let us say, by Romans 1.19. But his arguments have to hold in the public philosophical forum and be cogent to those without as well as with faith.

It seemed well to begin with this problem the problem of Christian Philosophy, because it is often confused with what Thomas meant by theology. There are two kinds of truth about God, Thomas observes. First, truths which can be known by anyone employing his natural capacity to think about the world around us; second, truths which God has revealed about himself and which are accepted as true on the basis of a gratuitously granted disposition of mind called faith.

The whole aim of philosophy, as it was begun by the Greeks, is to achieve wisdom is knowledge of the first principles and causes; but the first principles and causes are divine. Philosophy strives towards knowledge of the divine, and if it is successful, ends as theology (emphasis added, from “Thomas Aquinas, Selected Writings”, Introduction, pg xv).

In Muller’s discussion, all of this was brought up in his discussion of “archetype” and “ectype” (and the multiple kinds of “ectype” theologies). However, Calvin (following Luther) was keeping in mind the movement (in Romans 1) from pre-fallen man to man after the fall, and what happens to “knowledge of God” in that case.

For Aquinas, man’s intellect is not affected by the fall. For Calvin (following Scotus and Luther), “All knowledge of God must rest on authoritative testimony, primarily on that of Scripture”.

On the other hand, “philosophy” (especially the philosophy of the Greeks, notably Aristotle), while seeking to articulate “wisdom”, fails to provide the sufficient foundation for theology that McInerny attributes to it. Rather, as Warfield says, “objectively valid as the theistic proofs are, they are ineffective to produce a just knowledge of God in the sinful heart.”

And later Muller cites Turretin to that same effect:

The use of the term theology is either equivocal and inappropriate (abusivus) when it is applied to the false theology of pagans and heretics; or less than truly appropriate (minus proprius) when it is declared of the original and infinite Wisdom, which, apart from us, is known by God in himself according to an ineffable and most perfect mode of knowing; the term, indeed, cannot do justice to the dignity of the thing; or of the theology of Christ (theologia Christi) or of the theology of angels (theologia Angelorum); or proper (proprius), when it is applied to the theology of sojourning men (theologia hominum viatorum), … (from Turretin I.i.9).

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., p. 226). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

I think it will be instructive to follow Turretin’s thoughts at this point (and I’ll hope to do that in a subsequent blog post).

Following up, Muller says “Intellectually and theologically these distinctions and the debate over their use spring directly out of the preceding discussion of the meaning of the term theology and the problem of true and false theology (226).

This is another distinction that Rome codified at Trent (when it canonized Aquinas’s work as it did); Aquinas was a smart guy, but here’s a hugely important area where he got it wrong. We ought not to incorporate inferences drawn merely from reason as foundational to the entire doctrine of God.

10 thoughts on “Aquinas gets this wrong, and much confusion follows

  1. John, this clears up much of the confusion I had with Muller. I think part of the confusion was Muller’s comment that Luther was influenced by the nominalists. This concerns me, but as I think through it, Luther (and Calvin) probably only took the creator/creature distinction from them and not the other baggage. I was also concerned with the denial of analogical theology, but I think it was Thomas’ conception of it that was the problem (the analogia entis).

    The question I have now is, how similar is Luther to Calvin on the relationship of general revelation to special revelation? In a previous comment, I quoted Warfield on Calvin: “In the presence of Scripture, general revelation is not set aside, but rather brought back to its proper validity. The real relation between general and special revelation, as the matter lay in Calvin’s mind, thus proves to be, not that the one supersedes the other, but that special revelation supplements general revelation indeed, but in the first instance rather repeats and by repeating vivifies and vitalizes general revelation, and flows confluently in with it to the one end of both, the knowledge of God. What special revelation is, therefore–and the Scriptures as its documentation–is very precisely represented by the figure of the spectacles. It is aid to the dulled vision of sinful man, to enable it to see God.”

    This spectacles metaphor is important. Special revelation, according to Calvin (on Warfield’s account) is meant to direct us to general revelation. My point is simply that in Reformed theology special revelation does not transcend the general revelation; it reveals it (God as Creator) and reveals the mean of renewing one to it (Christ as redeemer). In other words, special revelation is not special as a means of climbing the ladder of being, but a special means of putting us in our proper place in creation. If I am right about this, then there are huge implications, one of which I detailed in my public aesthetics post.

    It seems though, given Luther’s two-realm theology and his view of the Law, that he would disagree with this special/general relationship. If the special points to and renews us toward the general, then it would seem that we are renewed toward all natural relations, including politics, society and the immutable moral law. As Wolterstorff said, Calvinism is “world-formative.” Lutheranism is not, to a large degree; and I think this is rooted in some conception of the special/general relationship.

    This is probably not where Muller is taking the discussion, so feel free to go without comment. These have been my thoughts lately.



  2. Sorry, but it’s not as simple as that. Thomas did hold that sin affected man’s reason:

    “…through the sin of our first parent…all the powers of the soul are left, as it were, destitute of their proper order [to virtue]…insofar as the reason is deprived of its order to the true, there is the wound of ignorance…” I.IIae Q. 85, art. 3

    And his actual view of theology was that it was based on divine revelation, unlike philosophy.

    “I answer that it was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a doctrine revealed by God besides the philosophical disciplines, which are investigated by human reason. First, certainly, because man is ordered toward God as toward an end that exceeds the comprehension of reason, according to Isaiah 65…it was necessary…that certain things which exceed human reason be made known through divine revelation. For the things also which can be investigated about God by human reason, it was necessary that man be instructed by divine revelation.”
    Q. 1, art. 1

    “It should be known that there is a twofold nature of the sciences, for there are some which proceed from principles known by light of the natural intellect…there are some, however, which proceed from principles known by the light of a superior science/knowledge…and in this way sacred doctrine is a science…sacred doctrine trusts principles revealed to it by God.” Q. 1, art. 2

    “…other sciences have their certitude from the light of human reason, which can err; [sacred doctrine] has certitude from the light of divine knowledge, which cannot be deceived.” Q. 1, art. 5

    “…this doctrine does not argue toward proving its first principles, which are the articles of faith, but from these proceeds to show some other thing…” Q. 1, art. 8

    Throughout question 1, Thomas clearly distinguishes theology from philosophy and even contrasts them in how they proceed, how certain they are, how they relate to reason, etc. So, you’re just wrong about Aquinas’ view of theology here.
    1. He did think that the fall affected the intellect.
    2. He did think that divine revelation, not philosophy and human reason, was the source of theology.

    Thomas is not without his problems, to be sure. But we should probably be accurate about what Thomas actually says. This is not.


    1. The difference lies in reason being “affected” and “wounded” vs it being “corrupted” and divine knowledge “inaccessible”. On the amount of reliance on “natural theology” to arrive at a doctrine of God — vs where the Scriptures are enjoined and which source takes precedence.

      Turretin calls this an “equivocation” on the word “theology” itself and McInerney clearly exhibits that equivocation in the quote I’ve given, and he distinguishes that it is “less than truly appropriate” when it is used in the sense that Thomas uses it.

      This won’t be unpacked in a single blog post, but I’m looking at finding fundamental differences leading to the need for the Reformation. This was one of them.


    2. As a Catholic Thomist philosopher who has written on Thomas Aquinas extensively, I can easily say you do not get Thomas’ understanding of the anologia entis or the effect of original sin correctly. Thomas did indeed believe the intellect was harmed by original sin, nor do you have an adequate understanding of the analogia entis. I suggest picking up the Summa and actually reading it. When you do this, you will see that his work is prefaced by saying all theology is negative theology. These topics are too much for me comment in detail, but I suggest much more research, as you are just outlining positions that Thomas never actually presented.


      1. N.C. thanks for stopping by. The difference — and it is well known — between Aquinas and the Reformers on this point is not simply that the intellect was “harmed”, but “corrupted”. And this understanding of corruption is a Scriptural concept. Being “dead in sin” is a fantastically horrific concept that the Roman church merely glosses over — man having lost its “donum superadditurm”, but then merely proceeding as if not much at all happened to the intellect. That certainly is not a biblical concept. It is also well known that Aquinas relied far too heavily on the philosophers — and it is this reliance, this “grand synthesis” that caused him to import what really are pagan concepts into Christianity.

        I agree, I (and in fact, all of us, eh?) need to do much more research. Lord willing I am headed in that direction. But I rely on a large number of the best commentators — scholars of the highest caliber. I’m satisfied that Muller here provides more than an honest and adequate understanding of the individuals whose work he is commenting on. And in fact, I work very hard to accurately state Roman Catholic viewpoints, and so I’m not too concerned about your non-specific criticisms.


    1. Hi Hermonta — I’m presenting this information for several reasons. First, because Muller is a leading resource on these topics, and his work crosses an incredible chasm of time. Second, I think it’s important for people in our time and environment to understand the historical background of the discussions that have come before us. And third, to try to attract an audience of people who are willing to look at and to try to understand these issues.

      With that said, I couldn’t say that I have a quick and easy response to your question, but I’ll certainly have it in mind moving forward.


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