Skip to content

An Apparent Apologetic Method in Aquinas: A Critique of Certain Van Tilianisms

August 13, 2008

Those theologians who consider themselves to be within the theological lineage of Cornelius Van Til tend to represent Thomas Aquinas as a rationalist who polluted the waters of theology with the pagan wine of philosophy.  He should have recognized that philosophy is separate from theology and that the use of reason by Christians such as proofs for God’s existence subsumes the latter underneath the former. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that those who believe this usually themselves hold to a radical opinion on how philosophy relates to theology.  See this statement by Van Til for example:

The Romanist-evangelical type of apologetics assumes that man can first know much about himself and the universe and afterward ask whether God exists and Christianity is true.  The Reformed apologist assumes that nothing can be known by man about himself or the universe unless God exists and Christianity is true. (Defense of the Faith, pp. 163, 317)

I understand what Van Til is trying to say here:  “Those apologetic methods that present Christianity to the atheist as an option on the buffet table of religions to be tested and verified by how much it “makes sense” do more harm to Christianity than good.”  They turn theology into philosophy.  I agree with this idea. However, I do not agree that man must first believe in God in order to know himself and the universe (which is the import of Van Til’s first statement). Unbelievers can have a limited knowledge of themselves and even of God.  With the implications of Van Til’s statement he is in danger of subsuming philosophy into theology.  

It is tempting to answer the Kantian dilemma and bridge the gap between the noumena and phenomena by appealing solely to God’s supernatural revelation of himself. However, this only makes things worse.  If certain things about God cannot be know apart from special revelation then how can anyone, Christian or not, justify anything extra-biblical? Are we all skeptics? What about Paul’s statement in Rom. 1:20 that the invisible things of God (his eternal power and divinity) have been clearly revealed to all men through created things? I shall first debunk the idea (however implicit) that Aquinas subsumed theology under philosophy and then show what I think his apologetic method may have looked like and point out similarities between it and that of Van Til. I hope this demonstration will reveal that a healthy relationship between philosophy and theology can only be maintained if reason is allowed to play a significant part in apologetics.  

Aquinas distinguished between theology and philosophy. No matter what Van Til’s apprentices desire to put forward against this notion Aquinas says clearly in the Summa (Ia. Q.I) that the first principles of reason are different from those of theology.  He even distinguishes between theology (in sacra doctrina) and theology (in philosophy). Theology seeks a knowledge of truths given by God. The knowledge sought in metaphysics is a knowledge of truths that man is capable of discovering through natural reason.  Thomas did not believe that men could reason their way to a salvific knowledge of God – not even with his Five Ways. In order for man to know God salvifically God must reveal himself, illuminating the soul with the supernatural light of faith.  “Thus, sacred doctrine is food and drink since it feeds and gives drink to the soul.  For the other sciences only illumine the intellect, but this illumines the soul.” (Aquinas, Commentary on Hebrews 5:12) The illumination of faith in sacred doctrine is an illumination of the entire soul (desire, emotions, intellect, etc.) as apposed to other sciences such as philosophy which only illuminate part of the soul, the intellect.  

Furthermore, Aquinas speaks of different authorities for theology and philosophy.  The first principles of the science of metaphysics are accepted based on the authority of their own coherence and self-evident nature.  All knowledge logically begins with being, is the primary first principle.  For example, in order to define an apple one must assume that apples exist (i.e. participates in the act of being). Also, the most important of all first principles of “divine science” is the law of non-contradiction – that a thing cannot be and not be at the same time. According to Aristotle, with whom Aquinas agreed, if anyone disagrees with these first principles then, instead of wasting time trying to prove the law of noncontradiction, the philosopher must refute (demonstrate the absurdity of) the opponent’s position.  It is perfectly fine for a philosopher to hold that chimeras are both real and fictional. However, it is not o.k. for that same philosopher to boast that he/she can use that logic to make sense of the world.  On the other hand, God’s self revelation is accepted because there is no higher authority than God himself.  Men should never subject revelation to the scrutiny of the first principles of metaphysics in order to determine its validity – this would be to set man’s natural reason at a higher level than God’s revelation. This would make man autonomous. The articles of faith (Trinity, Incarnation, etc.) could never be known without God’s revelation:

To dare to prove the Trinity by natural reason is to commit a double fault in the faith … First, one misapprehends the dignity of the faith itself, which has invisible things as its object, which is to say, those that go beyond human reason … Further, one compromises the means to lead certain men to the faith.  In effect, to bring as proof of the faith reasons that are not necessary is to expose the faith to the scorn of the infidels; they think that it is upon these reasons that we base ourselves, and it is on account of them that we believe. (ST Ia Q. 32, a.1; Q. 46, a.2)

Now, in order to understand what sort of apologetical argument Aquinas may have used (although we should be very cautious of eisegesis) we should look at what he says about philosophical argumentation.  Here is what Aquinas (commenting on Aristotle) says about demonstrating the first principles of philosophy to those who self-consciously disagree with them:

Here he [Aristotle] shows that the above-mentioned principle [law of non-contradiction] can be demonstrated in a certain respect.  He says that it may be demonstrated by disproof.  In Greek the word is elegktikos which is better translated as by refutation, for an elegchos is a syllogism that establishes the contradictory of a proposition, and so is introduced to refute some false position.  And on these grounds it can be shown that it is impossible for the same thing both to be and not be. (Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, IV.6.4)

Therefore if person A holds that circles are squares person B cannot demonstrate in the proper sense (by reducing conclusions to first principles) but must resort to proving the absurdity of person A’s argument by refutation.  Now, here is the question:  Does this same method apply in apologetics? If so, one could make the argument that Aquinas’s Five Ways may at least have been used as an offensive deconstruction of the unbeliever’s position.  However, one glaring problem presents itself.  In philosophy God’s existence is not a first principle since his existence is not self-evident (btw: this is why Aquinas disagrees with Anselm’s ontological argument).  Therefore, if the Five Ways are philosophical (not theological) demonstrations for the existence of God they cannot be refutations.  How do we answer this question of method?

First of all it must be noticed that refutation is not only used when an opponent blatantly denies a first principle but also when a conclusion has been reduced to a first principle and shown to be contradictory. For example Aristotle (Metaphysics, II.4.2) shows the absurdity of the position that denies the necessity of a first cause:

Again, if the classes of causes were infinite in number, it would also be impossible to know anything; for we think that we have scientific knowledge when we know the causes themselves of things; but what is infinite by addition cannot be traversed in a finite period of time.

Bertrand Russell disagreed with the argument from a First Cause that even if it did exist something would have to be the cause of it, basically assuming that an infinite regress is perfectly fine.  Unbelievers may go on believing in a world without a First Cause but the job of the Christian (if the situation permits) is to show that this position is absurd – even knowledge of language and communication would be impossible.  I do not think this is far from Aquinas’s method. 

Secondly,  we must look at the context in the Summa Contra Gentiles in which Aquinas writes of the Five Ways.  The plan of demonstration is as follows:

… the intention of the wise man ought to be directed toward the twofold truth of divine things, and toward the destruction of the errors that are contrary to this truth.  One kind of divine truth the investigation of the reason is competent to reach, whereas the other surpasses every effort of the reason. (Contra Gentiles, IX)

Because the natural man can have a knowledge of God the Christian is not limited to the authority of Scripture.  The demonstration is both offensive and defensive.  But, one may ask, why would a Christian want to argue based on the authority of reason when even Aquinas says that the authority of scripture is the “sole way to overcome an adversary”? Aquinas answers:

Thus, against the Jews we are able to argue by means of the Old Testament, while against heretics we are able to argue by means of the new Testament.  But the Mohammedans and the pagans accept neither the one nor the other.  We must, therefore, have recourse to the natural reason, to which all men are forced to give their assent … Now, while we are investigating some given truth, we shall also show what errors are set aside by it; and we shall likewise show how the truth that we come to know by demonstration is in accord with the Christian religion. (Ibid)

For Aquinas the authority of Scripture is the sole way to overcome those who are adverse to the faith but for those who do not accept this authority there is recourse to reason, including the demonstration of the preambles of the faith (God’s existence, oneness, etc.) mentioned by Paul in Romans 1:20 and the refutation of all errors – he also notes that natural reason cannot be contrary to the faith.  Why seek to demonstrate God’s existence to the pagan?  Aquinas answers (a) because “errors are set aside by it” and (b) because they do not accept the authority of scripture.  Therefore this means of defending the faith is a refutation of error which uses both positive and negative demonstration. Because the opinions of the unbeliever cannot contradict revealed truth they must be reduced to logical first principles and shown to be self-contradictory. Jean Pierre-Torrell reiterates this point, clarifying Aquinas’s definition of “convince”:

We should notice here also the word convicere, which does not at all have the meaning that we normally give it:  here it means not “persuading” but “convincing of error whoever has erred.”  That reason cannot demonstrate faith does not mean that it is impotent when faced with the objections of adversaries.  On the contrary, Thomas shows a robust confidence in the capabilities of reason in the believer.  “Since natural reason cannot go against the truth of the faith,” it can at least show that the adversaries arguments are not true demonstrations but sophisms that can be “dismantled.” (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 1:  The Person and His Work, p. 110)

I have included this discussion of a “possible” Thomas-ist apologetic not because I think apologetics as we know it was Aquinas’s primary intention in either of the Summas (See my post here).  However, I do think we can adapt his methods for use in a modern context.  My point has been to show that this Thomas-ist method is very similar to the transcendental method of Cornelius Van Til, by which the worldview of the unbeliever should be shown to be self-contradictory.  Surely, no one (that I know of) before Nietzsche’s critique of Christendom could speak in terms of a person’s world and life view “presupposing Christianity”, but, as I plan to point out in a later post, Aquinas did believe Paul that all men have an innate knowledge of God. Therefore, by seeking a truly Reformed apologetic method in contradistinction to (what they perceive/d to be) that of Thomas Aquinas Van Til and co. have opted for a less traditional (and sometimes seemingly ahistorical) method while maintaining a method of rational refutation similar to that which they originally critiqued in scholastic philosophy (particularly Aquinas) as being autonomous; yet under the guise of theology.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 14, 2008 11:39 am

    Here John Frame reaches the same conclusion about the transcendental argument as I have in this post (although I didn’t find Frame’s comments until after the post was written). He asks:

    “Is a negative or reductio argument the only way to show that Christian theism alone grounds intelligibility? Van Til thought it was. But (a) if, say, Thomas Aquinas was successful in showing that that the causal order begins in God, then God is the source of everything, including the intelligibility of the universe. Aquinas’s argument, then, though it is positive rather than negative, proves Van Til’s transcendental conclusion. And (b) if, say, physical law is unintelligible apart from the biblical God, why should we not say that physical law implies the existence of God? In that way, any transcendental argument can be formulated as a positive proof.” (“Presuppositional Apologetics”, in IVP Dictionary of Apologetics)

    My point, however, is that Van Til marketed his “proof” as theology while Aquinas, distinguishing between reason and faith, presented his proofs as reasons, i.e. philosophy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: