The recent tell-all book by Franky Shaeffer, Francis and Edith Schaeffer's son has recently put Shaeffer back into the limelight again. Shaeffer deserves better from his own offspring. I was myself very influenced by Schaeffer. He had several key insights about modern thinking and culture that, despite the sometimes maddening terminology marking him as an autodidact, I still find helpful.
Shaeffer was not an original thinker, but he managed to repackage the observations of others in a way that appealed to a modern protestant audience that has fundamentally affected the thinking of protestants ever since, mostly for good, and the mischievous effects of his mistaken analysis of Thomas shouldn't detract from the good effects of much else that he wrote.
Of course, before being told where this mistaken notion of Thomas came from, I had already encountered it in the same place myself. I remember reading it in the same place: in Schaeffer's Escape from Reason, one of the three books that lays the foundation of his thinking on Christian apologetics.
Did St. Thomas think the intellect was not fallen?
This interpretation of Thomas is not incidental to Schaeffer's analysis of modern thought. In fact, Schaeffer views this presumed failing of Thomas as the origin of the decline of the Christian worldview in the West:
In Aquinas's view the will of man was fallen, but the intellect was not. From this incomplete view of the biblical Fall flowed all subsequent difficulties. (Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason, p. 11)The chief trouble with this assertion, for which Schaeffer gives no documentation, is that it is completely the opposite of what Thomas actually said. Thomas clearly believed that the Fall applied to the intellect as well as the other powers of the soul:
As a result of original justice, the reason had perfect hold over the lower parts of the soul, while reason itself was perfected by God, and was subject to Him. Now this same original justice was forfeited through the sin of our first parent, as already stated (81, 2); so that all the powers of the soul are left, as it were, destitute of their proper order, whereby they are naturally directed to virtue; which destitution is called a wounding of nature ... [T]hrough sin, the reason is obscured, especially in practical matters, the will hardened to evil, good actions become more difficult and concupiscence more impetuous. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Article 85, Question 3)And not only did not not think the human intellect was uncorrupted, he clearly attributes its proper function to God:
Hence we must say that for the knowledge of any truth whatsoever man needs Divine help, that the intellect may be moved by God to its act ... We always need God's help for every thought, inasmuch as He moves the understanding to act. (Summa, Article 109, Question 1)I don't know, but am willing to conjecture that part of the problem with Schaeffer's analysis of St. Thomas stems from the fact that he never actually read him. Schaeffer's comments on his thinking bear all the marks of someone who has picked up his Thomas second hand, and from sources who have themselves misinterpreted him. In any case, his misunderstanding of Thomas's thinking causes Schaeffer to finger him as the fall guy in the decline of Western civilization, and in this he is completely and utterly wrong.
Schaeffer's Misinterpretation of the Nature/Grace Distinction
Schaeffer's analysis of the decline of Western thought begins by asserting that Aquinas makes a distinction between nature and grace. Nature is, roughly, the lower: corporeal things, such as the visible, tangible, bodily world in all its diversity. Grace, on the other hand, is the higher: constituted by the heavenly, the spiritual, the abstract, that which can provide unity to the diversity of nature.
Schaeffer's great contribution to the understanding of the history of ideas was to take these two ideas and present them as what he called the "upper story" (Grace: the realm of universals), and the "lower story" (Nature: the realm of particulars). Schaeffer used this notion to explain in a simple way the modern split between existentialism on the one hand (those who occupy the upper story), and materialism on the other (those who have confined themselves to the lower story). The observation was not original to Schaeffer: It had already been articulated by T. S. Eliot (the "dissociation of sensibility") and Alan Tate (the "double retreat from the moral center"). Schaeffer, however, gets the prize for simplifying and popularizing the idea.
There are several problems with this analysis. The first is that nature and grace are, in fact, distinct, and Schaeffer nowhere argues that they are not. In fact, he can't. All we get from his comment is a sort of bad vibe with which it is hard to know exactly what do other than conclude that there is something wrong with making this distinction. But there is clearly a distinction--a distinction that Schaeffer seems to misinterpret as a separation. The question is not whether nature and grace are distinct, but in what their relationship consists--and whether Aquinas had a true view of that relationship or a false one.
So far the problem is only a misinterpretation of Aquinas, in which Schaeffer mistakenly believes that he disagrees with him. But Schaeffer takes that perceived disagreement and founds upon it a belief that really does put him at odds with Aquinas--as well as with the whole of historic Christianity. And it is here that Schaeffer goes terribly wrong in his thinking, and propounds and error which increasingly infects much of protestant thinking:
While there were some good results from giving nature a better place it also opened the way for much that was destructive...In one realm man was now independent, autonomous.Here Schaeffer takes his misinterpretation of Aquinas and connects it to a view that Aquinas actually did hold: that there are things we can know about God independently of direct divine revelation. Schaeffer correctly labels it natural theology: the idea that there are truths, some of them even about God himself, that we can learn from God's creation. But whereas Schaeffer starts out by rightly defending a correct idea from a bad one he mistakenly thinks Aquinas holds, now he begins to incorrectly defend a bad idea from a good idea he correctly thinks Aquinas holds.
This sphere of the autonomous in Aquinas takes on various forms. One result, for example, was the development of natural theology. In this view, natural theology is a theology that could be pursued independently from the Scriptures. Though it was an autonomous study, he hoped for unity and said that there was a correlation between natural theology and the Scriptures. But the important point in what followed was that a really autonomous area was set up.
From the basis of this autonomous principle, philosophy also became free, and was separated from revelation. Therefore philosophy began to take wings, as it were, and fly off wherever it wished, without relationship to the Scriptures. (Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason, pp. 11-12)
Shaeffer, Natural Theology, and Presuppositionalism
The relationship between natural and revealed theology is one of the most salient issues concerning faith and reason, and it is ironic that one of the 20th century's most influential protestant thinkers should get it so wrong. Schaeffer's rejection of natural theology (again, he never argues the point, only assumes it) flies in the face of assertions in revealed theology itself. Schaeffer obviously wants to say (although he never comes right out and says it) that natural theology should be rejected. But the Apostle Paul says quite plainly at the beginning of Romans that we can know certain things about God from His creation. There may be somewhere in the corpus of Schaeffer's writing where he takes this into account, but I have yet to come across it.
Schaeffer is, in this sense, the intellectual heir of Cornelius Van Til and others who champion "presuppositionalism"--the idea that Christianity must be defended only by requiring the unbeliever to first abandon his worldview, and never by argumentation that assumes a neutral ground with the unbeliever. In fact, Schaeffer's debt to Van Til has yet, I think, to be fully appreciated. But while you can only sense Schaeffer's complete rejection of natural theology lurking in the background, Van Til comes right out in the open with it:
The point in dispute is not whether there is some knowledge that must be acquired by revelation, but whether there is any knowledge that can be acquired without redemptive revelation. We hold it to be definitely anti-Christian to say that any man can have any true knowledge of anything except through the wisdom of Christ. (Cornelius Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. 63)Now Van Til and his chief disciple Greg Bahnsen get very slippery when you start asking them hard questions about whether they are saying that you can't know anything apart from direct revelation. Sometimes they seem to say that you can and other times they seem to say that you can't. But if you reject natural theology, then what else can you possibly mean? And if that is not what you mean, then how can you reject natural theology?
The disintegration of the modern mind does not stem from a distinction between Nature and Grace, nor are its origins to be found in the belief in natural theology, a belief that antedates Aquinas by at least a thousand years. Rather it stems from a mistaken view of the relation between nature and grace, and from a corruption of the idea of natural theology--and neither of these things can be laid at the feet of Aquinas. Far from it.
Aquinas's Correct View of the Relation of Faith and Reason
In fact, if there is one person in the history of the Church you could point to as the man who did not have it wrong on the issue of faith and reason, it is Aquinas. It was Sigar of Brabant, a professor at the University of Paris in the mid-13th century, who, working from the ideas about Aristotle propounded by the Arab philosopher Averroes, propounded the doctrine of Double Truth: the idea that an idea could be true scientifically, but false theologically (or vice-versa). This is what Schaeffer seems really to be concerned about, although his unfamiliarity with the relevant history appears to prevent him from saying so.
Sigar of Brabant said this: the church must be right theologically, but she can be wrong scientifically. There are two truths; the truth of the supernatural world, and the truth of the natural world, which contradicts the supernatural world. When we are being naturalists, we can suppose that Christianity is all nonsense; but then, when we remember that we are Christians, we must admit that Christianity is true even if it is nonsense. In other words, Sigar of Brabant split the human head in two, like the blow in an old legend of a battle; and declared that a man has two minds, with one of which he must entirely believe and with the other may utterly disbelieve. (G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, pp. 92-93)Had Aquinas been complicit in this, Schaeffer would have a case. But, in fact, it was Aquinas who, in 1268, was sent to the University of Paris to correct the problem. His solution is well articulated by Etienne Gilson:
St. Thomas had asked the professors of theology never to prove an article of faith by rational demonstration, for faith is not based on reason, but the word of God, and if you try to prove it, you destroy it. He had likewise asked the professors of philosophy never to prove a philosophical truth by resorting to the words of God, for philosophy is not based on Revelation, but on reason, and if you try to base it on authority, you destroy it. In other words, theology is the science of those things which are received by faith from divine revelation, and philosophy is the knowledge of those things which flow from the principles of natural reason. Since their common source is God, the creator of both reason and revelation, these two sciences are bound ultimately to agree; but if you really want them to agree, you must first be careful not to forget their essential difference. Only distinct things can be united; if you attempt to blend them, you inevitably lose them in what is not union, but confusion. (Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, p. 50) [Emphasis added]Aquinas was clear on what the difference was between faith, based on direct revelation, and reason, based on natural revelation. He was an example of his own definition of a wise man: "That man is wise who orders things rightly and governs them well." (Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Article 1, Question 1) Unfortunately, there were those who were to follow, who didn't have things so nicely in balance.
St. Thomas's views on faith and reason are not the cause of the decline of Western thought, but the cure. And the solution, far from abandoning Aquinas's beliefs, is to restore them. In fact, it was the abandonment, not the propagation of Aquinas's beliefs on faith and reason that brought about the modern condition that Schaeffer spends so much time lamenting.
This is why I would take my stand with Richard Weaver, the author of Ideas Have Consequences, who traces the decline of the West, not to Aquinas, but to William of Occam. Aquinas constructed the only truly unified system of Christian philosophy--a system that recognized both revealed and natural revelation as distinct avenues to one truth, while acknowledging the proper limitations of each--and their ultimate source in God. While Aquinas was the author of this system, Occam was its destroyer. If anyone deserves blame for what ails modern man, it is Occam.
The Presuppositionalist Failture to Distinguish between Ontology and Epistemology
As Weaver correctly points out, Occam's chief mistake was questioning the reality of transcendental ideas:
...I take the view that the conscious policies of men and government are not mere rationalizations of what has been brought about by unaccountable forces. They are rather deductions from our most basic ideas of human destiny, and they have a great, though not unobstructed, power to determine our course.But it is hard for people like Schaeffer and Van Til to see the role of Occam in all this because Occam's mistake was an ontological, rather than an epistemological one, and the presuppositionalist's philosophical vision has never extended much beyond the epistemological. They can't see the ontological forest for the epistemological trees. The problem is not the epistemological problem of the starting point of our knowledge in the created world, but the ontological problem of a failure to understand what reality is and how it may be approached.
For this reason, I turn to William of Occam as the best representative of a change which came over man's conception of reality at this historic juncture. It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience. The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to that question is decisive for one's view of the nature and destiny of humankind. The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the affirmation of what is real, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on the road to modern empiricism. (Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences, p. 3)
In fact, one of the chief problems with presuppositionalism is precisely this: that they confuse the epistemological and the ontological. The whole problem with the presuppositionalist assertion concerning the apologetic "starting point," which they say, must be the Bible, is a confusion between these two categories. They assume that the ontological starting point is the epistemological point. It is an assumption that they are blind to because they don't even recognize the distinction, which is why it is never argued for in their literature, but simply assumed. Just because something is ontologically prior, it does not follow that it is epistemologically prior: just because a thing is most important, does not mean that it is the first temporal step in one's thought.
There are some of us educators who spend not a little time pointing this out to modern educators who don't get this distinction either, and who, as a result, end up jettisoning traditional methods of reading and math instruction that are based on an understanding of this distinction, in favor of methods that ignore it, and, as a result, fail to properly education children.
What goes for education goes for philosophical theology.
The blindness of many protestants to the ontological problems of thought have resulted in otherwise orthodox thinkers (some of them at the forefront of classical education) who champion modern systems of logic as opposed to the traditional system, as blind to bad metaphysics behind the former, as to the sound metaphysics underlying the latter. In fact, you could argue that the nominalism of Ockham is widespread among modern protestants. It is case of intellectual possession warranting a philosophical exorcism.
All this is to say that the problem at the origin of the decline of the Christian West that Shaeffer spent so much time lamenting is ontological not, as he thought, epistemological, and its chief antagonist is Ockham, not Aquinas. Indeed, where do we find the best philosophical expression of the Christian West that has fallen on such hard times if not in Aquinas?
It is Shaeffer who is largely responsible for the parody of St. Thomas that passes for his thought. There are obvious protestant objections to St. Thomas, but in making them, they should be made against what Thomas actually thought, not on oversimplications that fail to capture what, in fact, he really said.