Monday, January 10, 2011

Is St. Thomas a Theological Bad Guy? More Francis Schaeffer's criticism of Aquinas

One of the most persistently popular posts on this blog is my article defending St. Thomas Aquinas from charges leveled by Francis Schaeffer that Thomas' "nature/grace" distinction was the origin of modern secularism. It is a sorely mistaken charge that would never had been made if Schaeffer had actually read Thomas.

But since he apparently didn't, Schaeffer, who may be the most influential protestant thinker of the 20th century, got it utterly and completely wrong when he said:
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)
As I mentioned in the original post, this has a become a meme that surfaces almost every time St. Thomas comes up in a discussion with protestants. If they know anything about St. Thomas, they know this.

But, as I pointed out in the post, St. Thomas' actual writings contradict Schaeffer's claim. Thomas clearly thinks the intellect suffered from the fall (Summa Theologica, Article 85, Question 3). And he attributes the proper function of the intellect to God (Summa, Article 109, Question 1).

Notice that Schaeffer gives no references whatsoever to where he derived his idea to the contrary.

In any case, although the post was written about two years ago, I received the following comment on it the other day:
The blogger acknowledges that Schaeffer correctly read Aquinas to be saying that man's reason alone can find universal truths without resort to the revelation of Scripture. The blogger's quotation from Etienne Gilson confirms Aquinas' revelation/reason dichotomy that Schaeffer attributed to him. Aquinas presumed that the philosophers could reason their way from the particulars of nature to the universal truths of Scripture relying on reason alone and without ever resorting to the Scriptures. But Aquinas gave the philosophers an impossible task and the project was doomed from the start.
Well, I realize that Schaefferian devotion dies hard, but it appears the commenter, Dan Lawler, didn't read the post too well. The first part of this comment is true: Aquinas made a strict distinction between what you could know by reason and what you could know by faith. But part of the reason he did this was to show exactly the opposite of what Mr. Lawler says in the second part.

Here is what I quoted from Thomist philosopher EtiƩnne 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. (Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, p. 50)
Kind of exactly opposite of what Mr. Lawler says I said, ain't it? But Mr. Lawler does not stop there. He continues his critique with what, I'm afraid, is a rather confused analysis of what actually happened in the Middle Ages:
At first, the philosophers bought into Aquinas' false hope that they could find universals through reason alone and this provided the foundation for Descartes’ modern rationalism ("I think, therefore I am"). But hope eventually gave way to pessimism leading to the postmodern view that either there are no universals, or if universals exist we have know way of rationally knowing what they are.
First, Lawler shifts from charging (erroneously) that Aquinas believed he could go from the "particulars of nature to the universal truths of Scripture" to critiquing his belief that we can find "universals through reason alone." I gather then, that Lawler doesn't believe we can find universals (any) through the process of reason. If so, then it would be interesting to know how we do it? It might also be informative to know what his definition of "universal" is.

Second, how in the world did Aquinas' ontology lead to Descartes rationalism? And if this is true, then why do Thomists universally revile Descartes? (See Gilson on this) And how does Aquinas' view that universals exist lead to the postmodern view that they don't? At bottom such a charge is counter-intuitive, so it would be nice to see an actual argument.

And is Lawler aware that we didn't have to wait for postmodernism to encounter the rejection of universals? Universals were rejected by modernism long before postmodernism arrived on the scene. In fact, reformed protestant thought in particular and protestant thought in general displays a disturbing tendency to lapse into nominalism, so it is rather odd for an apparently reformed protestant to accuse Thomas of endangering the belief in universals.

He continues:
Whether you want to call this an ontological problem (universals do not exist) or epistemological (we have no way of rationally knowing what they are) is really beside the point. The point is that both ideas are the logical result of Aquinas' affirmation that human reason can arrive at truth without resort to the Scriptures.
Well, it's a nice assertion, but I don't see an argument. What reason is there to believe this? Lawler doesn't say. It is hardly self-evident that someone's belief that universals exist leads to the belief that they don't, so it would be nice to see why what process this could have happened. As it stands, Lawler doesn't give any.

Lawler also argues against my charge that those who criticize Aquinas don't make a distinction between ontology and epistemology by pointing out that in Schaeffer's book He is There and He is Not Silent has separate chapters on each of them. I'll have to wait to respond to that until I can lay my hands on the book.

9 comments:

Lee said...

As a Reformed Christian myself, I'm perhaps a bit more sympathetic to Van Til than you are.

If, however, Schaeffer misrepresented Aquinas' thoughts on the place of reason in religion, then that is a serious matter, and it's serious enough that no Reformed Christian who is a Schaeffer fan should sit still until it is sorted out.

As I see it, the essence of the disagreement between Reformed Christianity and the Roman Church is summed up in the question: who, or what, is the ultimate authority? The Roman church claims three authorities: the Bible, tradition, and the Church hierarchy, headed by the infallible (on theological matters) Pope. But since only the Church hierarchy has a legitimate claim to the correct interpretation of the Bible and tradition, then effectively the Church hierarchy is the ultimate authority. At the end of the day, there is only one authority.

The Reformed faith sees the Bible as the ultimate authority. If the pastor or the Reformed Presbytery or Francis Schaeffer gets the interpretation wrong, and there is no dogma by which we can say they are infallible, then it is on them to get right with the scriptures, not with the scriptures to get right with their interpreters.

All of that, to say this: I have a generally fond attitude toward Aquinas, and have had for some time. However, what I found most disturbing about Schaeffer's characterization of the attitude toward Greek philosophy from that time period is the number of works of art from that period (paintings, stained glass, etc.) where Greek philosophers were portrayed on the same level as the apostles. The Greeks had a good thing going, obviously, but they were, after all, pagans. It isn't right to use this to libel Aquinas, presuming he didn't subscribe or encourage such views, obviously. But where did these ideas come from?

By the way, in what way does Reformed theology flirt with nominalism?

One Brow said...

... then effectively the Church hierarchy is the ultimate authority. At the end of the day, there is only one authority.

The Reformed faith sees the Bible as the ultimate authority. If the pastor ... gets the interpretation wrong, ... then it is on them to get right with the scriptures, not with the scriptures to get right with their interpreters.


So, in contrast to the Catholic Church, if the pastor becomes convinced that the Trinity is an un-Biblical doctrine, no one in the Reformed Church will try to remove him for preaching that?

Lee said...

I didn't say that, OneBrow. What I said was that the judgment of the Presbytery is not authoritative, and I meant (and perhaps should have added) in any absolute sense. The Bible is authoritative. They have to interpret the Bible, obviously, but there is no dogma to insist their interpretation is authoritative by definition. We Reformed folks, in other words, can get it wrong and are well aware of this fact. If we said A yesterday and say not A today, we were wrong yesterday or we were wrong today. (Hopefully not wrong both times!)

Correct me if I'm wrong, by all means, but on theological matters, is not the Catholic hierarchy authoritative by definition? If this is true, it means they *cannot* get it wrong. Right by definition. If yesterday they said A and today they say not A, they were right yesterday and they are right today.

Hopefully, perhaps a lot of this is theoretical. In practice, though, it seems to me Reformed ministers walk through very tight theological hoops. Example: within the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America), there has been a theological dispute recently regarding something called the Federal Vision. Frankly, I don't understand what the big deal is, but I assure you, it was a big deal. As best as I can understand, the PCA and the Federal Visionists disagree on some seemingly minor point regarding justification. But however minor, it was big enough to cause a lot of heated rhetoric and even church splits here and there.

So rest assured that preaching a non-Trinitarian doctrine would get a PCA minister ousted. (In fact, non-Trinitarian doctrines are the cornerstone of heresy. The first thing any cult does is to deny the Trinity.) But when the accused PCA minister was allowed to speak, he would have to base his arguments on the Bible, and not on any sort of authority vested in him as an elder of the church.

Lee said...

I just watched my last post get removed magically somehow. I'll try to answer OneBrow one more time.

It's easier for a Reformed minister (at least in the PCA) to be removed than you might think. The difference is this: the Bible is authoritative, and not what we say about it. Hopefully, we say the right things about it. But if one argued otherwise and makes a strong Biblical case, we would have to prove or refute the claim on Biblical grounds. If our church hierarchy, such as it is, said A yesterday and not A today, then they were wrong yesterday or are wrong today. The Bible is infallible; the church hierarchy is not.

The Catholics seem to go at it the other way around. The church hierarchy is infallible. If they said A yesterday and today say not A, then they were right yesterday and they are right today. At least that's my understanding. Once upon a time, eating meat on Friday was wrong, and now it's right. They weren't wrong then and right now, or right then and wrong now. They were right then, and they're right now.

I hope that's a fair statement.

One Brow said...

It's easier for a Reformed minister (at least in the PCA) to be removed than you might think.

Sorry if I was unclear. I was completely certain such a minister would be removed, even though said minister was following the Bible to the best of the minister's understanding. Ultimately, when you say you would uphjold or remove him on "Biblical grounds", you set men up as the authority over what the Bible says, just as you accues the RCC of doing.

Lee said...

It wasn't an accusation, just an observation. The fact that I'm a Presbyterian does not mean I can have no respect for the Catholic Church.

In practical terms, it probably looks pretty much the same. If a bunch of heretics try to set themselves up within the church, we run them out of town on a rail, figuratively speaking, Catholic or Presbyterian. But there is at least a philosophical difference in the way authority is established, even if it manifests itself similarly.

daniel4wr said...

SCHAEFFER WAS RIGHT

Let's start from where Martin Cothran and I agree:

(a) We agree that Aquinas affirmed, as Mr. Cothran wrote in his 2009 posting, that "there are things we know about God independently of direct divine revelation" and "there are truths, some of them even about God himself, that we can learn from God's creation."

(b) We agree with Etienne Gilson's statement that Aquinas "asked the professors of philosophy never to prove a philosophical truth by resorting to the words of God, as philosophy is not based on Revelation, but on reason, and if you try to base it on authority, you destroy it."

(c) We agree that man's intellect was corrupted by the Fall.

With these agreed premises, it is easy to link Aquinas with Modern Rationalism and today's Relativism that denies the existence of God and denies universal truths.

The modern Rationalists merely did what everyone agrees Aquinas told them to do: they searched for truth using only their reason without resort to God's Revelation. From there, it was inevitable, given man's fallen intellect, that he would not come to know God through his reason. As the Scriptures say, "the world through its wisdom did not come to know God" (1 Cor. 1:21), to the contrary, men "became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened." Romans 1:21.

Aquinas sent the philosophers on a wild goose chase: telling them to find God without the Scriptures and thereby depriving them of any hope of accomplishing the task.

When Aquinas told the philosophers to base their truths on reason alone and never to prove a truth by resorting to Scripture, he made man's reason autonomous from Scripture. Schaeffer correctly observed: "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.... Aquinas had opened the way to an autonomous Humanism, an autonomous philosophy, and once the movement gained momentum, there was soon a flood." Escape from Reason, pages 11-13.

Schaeffer was right.

Dan Lawler

Martin Cothran said...

Dan,

Aquinas told the philosophers to base their truths on reason alone and never to prove a truth by resorting to Scripture, he made man's reason autonomous from Scripture.

Where did he say this? Have you read Aquinas? Can you give me an example of a single article in the entire Summa that does not quote the Scriptures?

daniel4wr said...

Martin,

You’ve requested my authoritative source for the statement that Aquinas told the philosophers to base their truths on reason alone and never to prove a truth by resorting to Scripture.

My authoritative source is you. That is, I referenced your acknowledged authoritative source, the Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson whose book The Unity of Philosophical Experience is approvingly cited in your January 15, 2009, blog as stating (on page 50) that:

"He [Aquinas] 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."

Good enough for you?

Dan
1/19/11