“I am utterly convinced that one of the greatest problems facing modern evangelicalism is that we have failed to rightly understand the Sufficiency of Scripture and have unwittingly adopted Pagan philosophy as an equal ground for right thinking”
The title of this post will pique interest of a very select few, I’m aware of this. However I believe the topic of the incompatibility of Aquinas’s philosophy with Christian theology is has very practical daily applications. The error Aquinas made, is being made in large scale by most Christians I come across today. And so, by carefully examining this error through the teachings of Aquinas, the Church will hopefully be served to avoid making the same error in their own thinking. This post is undoubtedly indebted to Jeffrey Johnson and his new book The Failure of Natural Theology, which I highly recommend and quote from in this post.
Thomas Aquinas is one of the most prolific intellectuals of Church history. In the Catholic Church he is known as a Doctor of the Church, a title reserved for an elite few in Catholic Church history. During his life Thomas repeatedly turned away from offers to hold more authoritative positions within the Church in order to stay focused on his work of study and writing which he believed was best done as a lowly friar. His greatest known work is surely Summa Theologica which is a philosophical summary of the teachings of the Catholic Church. What made Thomas Aquinas’ work controversial was not his profound insights regarding the Scriptures (certainly we are all indebted to many of his insights), rather the controversy is around Aquinas’ larger aim in writing, which was to demonstrate that the Philosophy of Aristotle, particularly Aristotle’s perception of God, was in alignment with the revelation of Scripture. It was for this attempted fusion of Aristotle and Scripture that so many of Aquinas’ contemporaries fought against him. Therefore in order to understand Aquinas you must first know a little about Aristotle
The Pagan philosopher Aristotle lived and taught around 350BC. Aristotle believed that human reason, all on its own with no revelation from God, was capable of “knowing God.” Before I go any further, I want you to truly consider that proposition. Can humans, using all of their senses and scientific reasoning, know God as He truly is? How we answer that question will determine much of how we and our Churches go about the Great Commission that God has given us to make disciples of all nations.
In one sense Christians do affirm that there is much to know about God through our senses. Romans 1:20 says, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” We call God’s revelation of Himself through nature, Natural Revelation. Johnson describes Natural Revelation as, “the immediate awareness of God that comes with the awareness of self and nature (p. 29).” However, in another sense we must admit, along with the Scriptures, that Natural Revelation is limited. The trees reveal the power and creativity of God (Romans 1:20), but they do not reveal that He is a Trinity. The skies above reveals the glory of God (Psalm 19:1), but they do not proclaim humanity’s salvation in Christ alone. For these truths, we need revelation from God. We need Scripture.
And it is here where we arrive at the fundamental differences between Pagan Philosophy and Christian Theology. Philosophy places man in a position of being detached from absolute truth. Philosophy is man’s attempts to discover truth without direct revelation. As a Christian we should easily understand the problem here.”Like the impossibility of writing a book with only a few letters of the alphabet, natural theology does not have access to the needed data (i.e., the Trinity) to explain the nature of God (p. 30).” Christians do not begin in this aimless position of separation from absolute truth, rather we begin in the position of those who have had absolute truth revealed to them through the Word of God. If humans want to know God, we must start with God’s revelation of Himself. In other words, Philosophy is a dead end. Consider the words of Proverbs 30:1-6,
“The words of Agur son of Jakeh. The oracle. The man declares, I am weary, O God; I am weary, O God, and worn out. Surely I am too stupid to be a man. I have not the understanding of a man. I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One. Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son’s name? Surely you know! Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.”Proverbs 30:1-6
What Agur (above) so rightly understands is what Philosophy gets so wrong. All of our thinking and striving to know God is nothing more than thinking we can rebuild our own Towers of Babel and get to God through human effort. It is a laughable thought, but this is what the framework of Philosophy is predicated upon.
Aristotle arrived at a framework of God that he called ‘The Unmoved Mover.’ Space limits me here from working through his ‘Cosmological Argument’ for deducing that God is the Unmoved Mover. But through his revelation-less philosophy Aristotle concocted a God that is unmoved in every sense of the word. Aristotle’s God does not relate to humanity in any way, because to relate to humanity would be to change and therefore to move in some way. Aristotle’s God does not speak because to speak would be to move or change in some way. Aristotle’s God does not love because to love would be to exert a force in a particular direction and therefore to move. Aristotle’s God exists in one eternal simple unmoving, unrelating, unthinking state of perfection and goodness. He is not the source of creation, but rather the end, the final good state of peaceful immobility that every atom in the universe finds its perfection in.
Aquinas gave his life to trying to demonstrate that the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle, was indeed the God of the Bible. This indeed was a foolish endeavor, because while the two concepts of God share some overlap, they are in reality worlds apart from each other. To put it simply, Aquinas tried to take Pagan philosophy and show how it was compatible with the Bible, and in the process made a mess of things.
What’s the Point
Alright, enough with the philosophical speculations. What’s the point? Why should we care? I am utterly convinced that the greatest problem facing modern evangelicalism is that we have failed to rightly understand the Sufficiency of Scripture and have unwittingly adopted Pagan philosophy as an equal ground for right thinking. Rather than believing the source of all of our problems can find their solution in the pages of Scripture, we have begun to truly attempt with our most polished efforts, to merge pagan philosophy with our Christian faith. This is exactly the mistake Aquinas made. But hear Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians
“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”1 Corinthians 1:21
Modern evangelicalism has done its best to make Christianity as appealing and easy to digest as possible to the outside world. Rather than standing firmly, faithfully, and courageously on the clearly revealed truths of Scripture, we have adopted so much of the pagan philosophy of our modern day that believes that our senses are the final arbiter of truth and our experiences define our reality. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was prophetic when he said these words:
The Scriptures are sifted, “through the sieve of one’s own experience, despising and shaking out what will not pass through; and one prunes and clips the biblical message until it will fit in a given space, until the eagle can no longer fly in his true element but with clipped wings is exhibited as a special showpiece among the usual domesticated animals.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer
What is most needed in our Churches today, in fact what I believe is the great hope this upside down world we are living in needs, is Christians who plant their feet on the sufficiency of God’s Word. Christians who build their entire life upon the Word of God. Christians who reject philosophical speculation that is detached from the clarity of God’s Word. Christians who, when faced with a cultural challenge or political/moral problem, do not look first to world’s solutions, but rather open their Bibles and find the solutions God has provided, and then have the courage to challenge the world’s ideas by offering God’s ideas in its place. If we can raise up a generation of believers who live like that, and who simultaneously sacrifice their lives in service and love to others as Christ has done for us, we’ll be in good shape.
We got some work to do. Let’s go!