Aquinas: Protestants' Bogeyman?
Most evangelicals aren't fans of Thomas Aquinas for a very good reason--they haven't read him. So says Arvin Vos, professor of philosophy at Western Kentucky University, in Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought.
Vos writes to introduce Aquinas to his fellow Protestants who know little or nothing about him. But the book is also important because it will help Catholics understand and respond to Protestant criticism of the Angelic Doctor.
A strong case is made for Aquinas's relevance in bridging the gap between Protestants and Catholics. Citing Josef Pieper's observation that Aquinas spoke for "a still undivided Western Christianity," Vos contends Protestants shouldn't see him as an enemy. He says Aquinas has been misunderstood by Protestants, and he challenges assessments of Aquinas proffered by Evangelicals such as Carl F. H. Henry, Cornelius Van Til, and Francis Schaeffer.
As Vos shows, sometimes Protestant disagreements with Aquinas are more apparent than real. Take, for example, the question of whether or not faith is a form of knowledge. Calvin affirmed that it is, while Aquinas denied it. But, as Vos demonstrates, this is mainly a difference in terminology.
When Calvin said that faith is knowledge, he was using the word knowledge in a different sense than Aquinas. He stressed the certitude faith brings. Faith is knowledge in the commonplace sense in which we affirm something with certitude regardless of whether or not we have evidence for doing so. Vos quotes Calvin's description that such knowledge involves "assurance rather than comprehension."
When Aquinas denied faith is knowledge, he was using knowledge in a technical, philosophical sense adapted from Augustine. He meant seeing the truth of something by means of one's intellect. In this sense, faith isn't knowledge. The certitude of faith doesn't come from reasoning, but from the authority of God, who reveals what is believed. We walk by faith, not by sight.
Vos points out that Calvin and Aquinas agreed that faith involves certitude, though not a certitude derived from reasoning. The will, by the power of God, moves the intellect to assent to something which one does not see, by the natural light of reason, to be true.
Not all Protestant dissent from Aquinas's doctrine is reducible to semantics. Vos asserts there is real disagreement on the relationship between faith and reason. At the same time, the Reformed tradition generally misrepresents Aquinas's teaching on the subject.
Some Evangelical theologians accuse Aquinas of holding that, to have faith, God's existence must first be proven. This is supposedly why Aquinas's famous Five Ways come early on in the Summa. Thus, critics contend, Aquinas subordinates faith to reason.
Is proof of God's existence necessary before faith is possible? Aquinas taught that reason alone can prove the existence of God, but that such proof isn't necessary as a prerequisite to faith. As Vos shows, Aquinas held God revealed truths which reason can know apart from revelation (such as the existence of God) because not everyone has the time, preparation, or inclination to pursue such truths philosophically.
Protestant commentators have regarded Aquinas's understanding of faith and reason as indicative of a larger error: his teaching on the relationship between nature and grace. Many Reformed theologians say Aquinas taught an Aristotelian view of man: Human nature is complete and self-sufficient. They say Aquinas believed mankind is largely unaffected by the Fall. Grace then becomes a mere supplement to man's natural powers.
To this charge Vos responds by examining what Aquinas himself said, not merely what Protestant critics claim he taught. He cites Aquinas's summary of the four ways the powers of the soul have been affected after the Fall: "In so far as reason is deprived of its direction toward truth, we have the 'wound of ignorance'; in so far as the will is deprived of its order toward good, we have the 'wound of malice'; in so far as the irascible appetite is deprived of its ability to face the difficult, we have the 'wound of weakness'; in so far as the concupiscible appetite is deprived of its ability to temper the pleasurable, we have the 'wound of concupiscence.'"
Vos concludes Aquinas didn't teach that man was undamaged by the Fall. For the Angelic Doctor, as for Augustine, man's postlapsarian state requires God's healing grace, not simply because any created nature requires grace to obtain the vision of God, but also because of the effects of the Fall.
How is it Evangelicals come by such misunderstandings of Aquinas? Largely by Protestants relying on second-hand accounts of his teaching, whether by Catholics or Protestants, rather than on Aquinas's own works. Vos writes, "Time and again after reading what Protestants have to say about Aquinas, I have come to the conclusion that they would not have written what they did if they had actually read him."
Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought is an excellent invitation to the reader, whether Protestant or Catholic, to meet Aquinas himself and to find in him what millions of others have discovered--a masterful defender of the Christian faith.
-- Mark Brumley
Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought
By Arvin Vos
Washington D.C.: Christian College Consortium, 1985
Not Good Enough
Most Christians regard the Trinity as a mystery so impenetrable they never give it serious study. This is particularly unfortunate since the Trinity is the very heart of Christianity. Without it, cardinal doctrines such as the divinity of Christ, the Incarnation, and the Atonement are rendered meaningless. The Jehovah's Witnesses, keenly aware of the centrality of the Trinity, waste no time in attacking it.
When asked if he believes the doctrine of the Trinity, the average Catholic or Protestant will answer with a resounding "Yes!" But when asked why he believes it, he'll become flustered and grope for a convincing explanation. If he's sharp, he might blurt out, "I believe in the Trinity because the Bible teaches it." That is precisely the answer the Witnesses want him to give. They'll show him the "biblical" answer as given in a 32-page pamphlet entitled Should You Believe in the Trinity? It represents their most concentrated anti-Trinity attack yet.
To the untrained reader the pamphlet appears to marshal an impressive array of Bible citations, historical facts, and convincing arguments all intended to accomplish two objectives: to dissuade the reader from a belief in the Trinity and to pique an interest in becoming a Jehovah's Witness.
This pamphlet, widely circulated in several languages (the first English printing was 5,000,000 copies), is a force to be reckoned with. One Evangelical Protestant apologist, Robert M. Bowman, Jr., has stepped up to the plate to do some reckoning.
In Bowman's introduction one finds this caveat: "This book does not offer a thorough or exhaustive study of the doctrine of the Trinity." Bowman is true to his word.
His arguments are reasonable but not compelling. He's at his best in the exegetical sections of the book, providing serviceable refutations of the anti-Trinity "proof texts" the Watchtower advances.
For example, he assembles convincing linguistic proof that the Witnesses are wrong in their attempts to evade the clear meaning of John 1:1 by mistranslating it as "in the beginning the word was agod." For the most part, the biblical arguments Bowman assembles are effective in evangelizing Witnesses.
Although Greek grammar rules and sound biblical exegesis are vital to the defense of the Trinity, they aren't enough. Biblically astute Catholics might be tempted to say Bowman's arguments are "profitable but not sufficient."
The author seems to sense this but is at his weakest when he attempts to balance off his biblical arguments with Church history and patristic literature.
In discussing the writings of Church Fathers on the Trinity (an attempt to respond point-by-point to the misinformation in the Watchtower pamphlet), Bowman sometimes gets his facts mixed up.
For example, on page 30 we read: "The word 'Trinity,' as well as the distinction between 'one God' and 'three persons,' was first developed by Tertullian." This is not true, and a sharp Jehovah's Witness (an oxymoron?) would catch it.
The fact is, Theophilus, the seventh bishop of Antioch, made the distinction and used the Greek word trias in his theological treatise Ad Autolycum in the year 181--some twelve years before Tertullian converted to Christianity. (It's possible the term trias was in common use before Theophilus's day.)
Years later, Tertullian used the Latin word trinitas as a cognate of the Greek trias, but was certainly not the first, as Bowman claims, either to use the term or "develop the distinction."
In addition to this elementary blunder, Bowman unwittingly undermines Protestantism itself through his argument that there were no Jehovah's Witnesses in the early years of the Church:
"Where, during the centuries following the New Testament era, were the ancient counterparts to today's JWs? According to the Witnesses, the church fell into apostasy sometime after the apostolic era, and the truths of the Bible were re-stored only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in their religion. If this is so, we would expect to find some record of a religious group in the second or third century with views resembling at least somewhat those of the JWs. But such is not the case. The closest parallel is the Arian movement, but it did not exist until the fourth century" (page 37).
Catholics use the same argument with devastating effect to demonstrate that the early Church was Catholic, not Protestant (it taught peculiarly Catholic doctrines such as the Eucharist, the priesthood, sacraments, and purgatory).
Bowman should be asked, "Where is there evidence of Evangelical Protestants existing in the early years of the Church? We'd expect to find some evidence of such a group with views resembling at least somewhat those of Evangelicals. The closest parallel is John Wycliffe, but he didn't happen upon the scene until the fourteenth century." In his argument from history Bowman inadvertently refutes both the Watchtower and Protestantism in the same stroke.
Interestingly, when this argument is used by Catholics, it's dismissed by Evangelicals as irrelevant. The fact that patristic literature points to the early Church as Catholic, not Protestant, is conveniently ignored by Evangelical apologists.
The weakness in Bowman's position is sola scriptura, and it becomes apparent when he ventures beyond the realm of strictly exegetical apologetics. There is no effort made to explain the necessity of God's triune nature through philosophy and theology.
Ultimately, Bowman must rely on his private interpretation of the verses he cites as proof of the Trinity. The Witnesses too claim the Bible as their sole authority and manufacture an exegesis tailor- made to fit their doctrines.
But since the Bible isn't auto-interpreting, neither Bowman nor the Watchtower can appeal to an infallible authority to validate their scriptural interpretations. Bowman is right, but, because of his sola scriptura position, he ultimately can't prove he's right.
The inadequacy of Why You Should Believe in the Trinity is further accentuated when the book is contrasted with an earlier Bowman book, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of John (Baker Book House, 1988). In that book Bowman does an excellent job of demolishing the Watchtower's spurious translations of John 1:1 and John 8:58.
A vastly more effective response to the Witnesses' anti-trinitarian theology can be found in Frank Sheed's Theology and Sanity. Sheed explains with penetrating clarity why the One True God must be triune. He combines scriptural citations and relentless logic to demonstrate the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity. Protestants are edified by Theology and Sanity (and anti-trinitarians who dare to read it are shaken--and sometimes converted), because Sheed explains the doctrine on all levels, recognizing that a complete and successful defense of the Trinity cannot be made from the stunted perspective of sola scriptura.
Bowman's offering is a start (unfortunately, it's the only refutation of the Watchtower's pamphlet yet to come forward), but it's neither complete nor conclusive. As a fellow apologist for the Trinity, I wanted badly to see Bowman trounce the Witnesses. I hope he'll re-examine the writings of the Church Fathers, read Theology and Sanity, and try again.
-- Patrick Madrid
Why You Should Believe in the Trinity
By Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989
At parish seminars we're sometimes asked, always by "Bible Christians," "Why do you discuss all this theology? It's not important. Why don't you just proclaim the Word of God?"
We answer: "Because proclamation isn't enough." Many in our audiences find the Catholic message untenable, even superficially repulsive--and those are the people who understand basic Christian terminology.
Others have no idea what is meant even by terms such as God, grace, and salvation, not to mention distinctively Catholic terms such as purgatory, Assumption, and Immaculate Conception. How can you proclaim the marvel of the Immaculate Conception to people who have no idea what "original sin" means? How can you speak about God to someone whose images of God haven't progressed beyond those of childhood?
No, mere proclamation isn't enough. Something more is needed, and that something is apologetics, which is the science of giving reasons for our beliefs and therefore reasons for acting on the proclamation of their truth. We must keep in mind what the first pope said: "Be always ready with a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet. 3:15).
As in Peter's day, we face a hostile world, one that doesn't accept our premises as self-evident. Some of the hostility is a product of the boredom of modern life. Some of it arises from ignorance, some from hereditary prejudice. Whatever the origin, this hostility can't be countered by proclamation alone.
Imagine the situation of the first Christians, spreading the gospel in a world hungry for spiritual food but unwilling to give up the familiarity of spiritual famine. We live in a similar world, and it affects not only those outside the Church, but also those inside. We are inadequately moved by the Word when it is proclaimed to us because we don't understand what the Word means. Our actions aren't commensurate with what we claim to stand for.
(The trouble with Catholicism, it has been said, isn't Catholicism. The trouble with Catholicism is Catholics. We have the truth, but it's hard to believe that by looking at how most of us act.)
It is arguable whether American society ever was authentically Christian. It certainly isn't Christian today. It doesn't want the Word proclaimed to it because it fears it might have to act on that Word.
Thus hostility. But hostility can be overcome through patience, plain talk, and good will, which is to say through apologetics rightly conducted and covering all the fundamental points. Apologetics opens doors which have been closed through ignorance or bad will. Then proclamation takes over.
Reasons for Hope is a collection of essays on just such fundamental issues: the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, revelation, the authenticity of the New Testament, the Resurrection and divinity of Christ, the foundation and history of the Church, the authority of the popes, the defense of dogma, and the development of Christian doctrine. These are the themes of the main chapters.
The appendices are especially useful in everyday apologetics because they're on topics that come up often: the Inquisiton, the Crusades, the Galileo case, justification by faith, and liberation theology. The appendix on justification is especially fine--I stole from it recently when preparing for a debate.
Contributors to the book are Kristin Popik Burns, Warren H. Carroll, William H. Marshner, and Jeffrey A. Mirus. Each has taught at Christendom College, and each has impressive credentials. Carroll, for instance, is probably the top Catholic historian now writing.
The essays in Reasons for Hopeare aimed at the literate Catholic, not at the rank beginner. But they are designed so the literate Catholic can proclaim the truth of the faith to beginners (whether Catholic, Protestant, or entirely non-religious) who want to know the truth that will set them free.
-- Karl Keating
Reasons for Hope
By Jeffrey A. Mirus, ed.
Front Royal, Virginia: Christendom College Press, 1982