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

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.  

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I don’t think it is autonomous rationalism to begin one’s apologetics with theological proofs.  The whole point of beginning with reason is not to start from a neutral ground where all facts are brute facts and everyone agrees that religion is not an issue.  The point of beginning with reason is to demonstrate the necessity of faith. One must differentiate, as St. Anselm did, between an “independent” argument and an argument made directly from Holy Scripture.  Neither can be called “autonomous.”  Both presuppose the necessity of the Triune God.

Gregory of Nyssa on Universals

According to F. Copleston the Greek Fathers were generally influenced by Platonism and neo-Platonic philosophy.  He says of St. Gregory:

St. Gregory’s “Platonism” in regard to universals comes out clearly in his De hominis opificio, where he distinguishes the heavenly man, the ideal man, the universal, from the earthly man, the object of experience. The former, the ideal man or rather ideal human being, exists only in the divine idea and is without sexual determination, being neither male nor female:  the latter, the human being of experience, is an expression of the ideal and is sexually determined, the ideal being, as it were, ‘splintered’ or partially expressed in many single individuals.  Thus, according to Gregory, individual creatures proceed by creation, not by emanation, from the ideal in the divine Logos.  This theory clearly goes back to neo-Platonism and to Philonism, and it was adopted by the first outstanding philosopher of the Middle Ages, John Scotus Eriugena, who was much influenced by the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa. (History of Philosophy, Vol. 2: Augustine to Scotus, p. 33)

Borrowed Truth

As I read it is becoming more clear to me that folks like Van Til, Schaeffer, and Bahnsen did not invent the idea that Modern Philosophy has borrowed turf from Christianity.  Van Til was critical of Medieval Philosophy for being too rationalistic but Ettiene Gilson in his The Spirit of Mediaeval Philosophy argues that Modern Philosophy borrowed just as much from Augustine as it did from Plato and Aristotle. He notes that philosophical works from the 17th and 18th centuries would be difficult to explain without taking into account the “Christian Philosophy” of the Medievals, who may have overemphasized man’s reasoning capabilities but never allowed that reason to contradict the fundamentals of faith: 

Open for example the works of Rene Descartes, the reformer of philosophy par excellence, of whom Hemelin went so far as to say that “he is in succession with the ancients, almost as if – with the exception of a few naturalists – there had been nothing but a blank between.”  What are we to make of this “almost”? Consider, to start with, the title of the Meditations sur la metaphysique, “in which are demonstrated the existence of God and the immortality of the soul.” Consider, again, the close kinship of Descartes’ proofs of God with those of St. Augustine or even those of St. Thomas.  It would not be at all difficult to show that his doctrine of liberty owes a great deal to the mediaeval speculations on the relations between grace and free-will – a Christian problem, if ever there was one. (Gilson, p. 13)

Gilson also points out that Hume, in his pronouncement against causality, borrowed heavily from Malebranche.  “Now to whom does Malebranche appeal?  To St. Augustine quite as much as to Descartes.” (Ibid., p. 15)

BTW:  Gilson wrote this in 1931.

For Plato the Absolute Is “Separate”

Contrary to what many, including myself, have been taught Frederick Copleston argues that Plato did not consider the Forms to exist apart from particulars in terms of space.  He explains:

Beauty in itself or Absolute Beauty is “separate” in the sense that it is real, subsistent, but not in the sense that it is in a world of its own, spatially separate from things.  For ex hypothesi Absolute Beauty is spiritual; and the categories of time and space, of local separation, simply do not apply in the case of that which is essentially spiritual.  In the case of that which transcends space and time, we cannot even legitimately raise the question, where it is. (History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome, p. 174)

But is it not true that Plato held to a real separation between the particular thing and the Universal? Copleston answers:

The Chorismos or separation would thus seem to imply, in the case of the Platonic essence, a reality beyond the subjective reality of the abstract concept – a subsistent reality, but not a local separation.  It is therefore, just as true to say that the essence is immanent, as that it is transcendent:  the great point is that it is real and independent of particulars, unchanged and abiding.  (Ibid., p. 174, 175)

For Plato the transcendence of the Forms did not imply an “over-there-ness” but it was his method of explaining the unchanging nature of things.  That was the main point.  There must be an abiding principle in all things unless one deigns to consign reality to the world of flux – a conclusion Plato sought to avoid.  If that reality is spatially separate from sensible objects then there is only becoming and change, no real being.  The reality of the Forms does not necessitate spacial separation. Copleston concludes:

It is foolish to remark that if the Platonic essence is real, it must be somewhere.  Absolute Beauty, for instance, does not exist outside us in the sense in which a flower exists outside us – for it might just as well be said to exist inside us, inasmuch as spatial categories simply do not apply to it.  On the other hand, it cannot be said to be inside us in the sense that it is purely subjective, is confined to us, comes into being with us, and perishes through our agency or with us.  It is both transcendent and immanent, inaccessible to the senses, apprehensible only by the intellect. (Ibid., p. 175)

Something New Every Day: Did Aristotle Misrepresent Plato?

… the essence of Plato’s doctrine of Forms or Ideas is simply this:  that the universal concept is not an abstract form devoid of objective content or references, but that to each true universal concept there corresponds an objective reality.  How far Aristotle’s criticism of Plato (that the latter hypostatised the objective reality of the concepts, imagining a transcendent world of ‘separate’ universals) is justified, is a matter for discussion by itself:  whether justified or unjustified, it remains true that the essence of the Platonic theory of Ideas is not to be sought in the notion of the ‘separate’ existence of universal realities, but in the belief that universal concepts have objective reference, and that the corresponding reality is of a higher order than sense-perception as such. (F. Copleston, History of Philosophy, Vol: 1 Greece and Rome, p. 151)

Faith and Eucharist: Aquinas and Calvin In Harmony

I recently presented (in class) a study concerning the placement of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin within Henri de Lubac’s historical scheme (in his Corpus Mysticum). I concluded that they were men of there times but that they both retained a strong ecclesiology.  I also concluded the following:  Neither Thomas nor Calvin believed Christ’s presence to be confined to the Eucharist.  Both men saw the faith of the believer and the unity of the Church through the Holy Spirit to be the reality behind the sacrament.  Both considered Christ’s presence to be beyond comprehension, thus only with spiritual anatomy (i.e. Thomas’ spiritual eyes and Calvin’s spiritual mouth) can believers commune with the divine reality.  Neither affirmed a physical presence or even a local presence, and both adamantly agreed that only through faith can one truly partake of Christ.  The main source of disagreement is the doctrine of transubstantiation.  Calvin understood it as “that fictitious transubstantiation for which today they fight more bitterly than for all the other articles of their faith.” (Institutes, IV.17.13)  However, it remains to be shown that Calvin had the particular teaching of Aquinas in mind or whether he sought an answer to those common beliefs of Medieval Catholics, who were perhaps influenced by the different theories of Scotus and Ockham.  In his Institutes Calvin argues against those “Papists” who hold to a local presence of Christ and the annihilation of the substance of the bread – two ideas that Aquinas believed to be erroneous.  It is also interesting to think what Calvin might judge of Catherine Pickstock’s reading of Aquinas on transubstantiation – that his reliance on the esse/essentia distinction transcends that of substance/accidents.