Jeff Johnson, Moved Movers, & Ghostly Paradoxes

Jeff Johnson, Moved Movers, & Ghostly Paradoxes

In his counter to Ed Feser’s article written in response to The Failure of Natural Theology, Jeff Johnson writes, “Aquinas accepted Aristotle’s foundation that God is the unmoved mover, but Aquinas did not embrace Aristotle’s logical conclusion that God could not have been the moving cause of the universe.” In other words, it is irrational to assert, on the one hand, God’s immobility while yet understanding Him to be the “moving cause” of the universe. He goes on to explain—

By holding Aristotle’s starting point and rejecting Aristotle’s conclusion, Aquinas’ philosophical theology was filled with all kinds of irresolvable tensions. As I explain in my book, Aquinas was unable to show how God could be Pure Act (unmoved mover) and, at the same time, the moving cause (effectual cause) of a world that was made out of nothing. How can Pure Act do something that is not essential to his own pure actuality? How can Pure Act do anything that is not necessary? Aquinas never gave any good answers to these questions. Aristotle sure didn’t think Pure Act could be the moving cause of the universe.

Johnson seems to believe there is an apparent contradiction in need of explanation. There is, as it were, a paradox in need of resolution. But, as we shall see, there is no such paradox unless the doctrine of pure actuality is approached through materialist and, might I say, Newtonian assumptions. Beyond a ghostly apparition, lacking all substance, this apparent contradiction is nonexistent. 

Thomas’ Flow of Thought

Johnson alleges Thomas fails to explain the “tension” between God as a pure act on the one hand and the temporal reality of His effects on the other. If God produces effects, it is assumed, He must undergo some kind of motion in order to bring them about. Thus, to say God is immobile while attributing the work of temporal, mobile creation to Him appears to be a contradiction in terms in need of serious philosophical and theological explanation.

Thomas, however, did not sense such a burden. For Thomas, God’s effects were and are to be interpreted in light of who God is. Rather than utilizing the finite characteristics of creation as an interpretive grid for the doctrine of God, there are fundamental things which cannot be true of God, e.g. contingency, finitude, change. We should understand God, as unchanging, necessary Being, as that which conditions creation rather than understanding creation as that which conditions or limits God—which it would do if God required motion (the actualization of a potential) in order to create. Such a divine priority is set forth in what Thomas writes here:

From what precedes, it is shown that God is altogether immutable. First, because it was shown above that there is some first being, whom we call God; and that this first being must be pure act, without the admixture of any potentiality, for the reason that, absolutely, potentiality is posterior to act. Now everything which is in any way changed, is in some way in potentiality. Hence it is evident that it is impossible for God to be in any way changeable (ST, I, Q. 9, Art. 1).

Why is God altogether immutable? “Because it was shown earlier,” he says, “that there is some first being, whom we call God; and that this first being must be pure act…” In other words, Thomas does not argue as thus: “Creation came into being. Coming into being entails motion. Therefore, there must be a ‘first motion’ in God.” Such an order would be wrong-headed to a medieval scholastic like Thomas because it imposes what is proper only of composed, contingent being upon God—who is altogether simple and therefore necessary.

Does Creation Necessarily Imply a “First Motion” in God?

Johnson asks, “How can Pure Act do something that is not essential to his own pure actuality? How can Pure Act do anything that is not necessary?” If pure act is already “done,” so to speak, how can it “do” any more? To do that which He has not yet done, e.g. to create, would seem to imply some movement from “not doing” to “doing” in God. But to assume God must undergo motion Himself in order to produce motion in another is to place Him squarely within the order of contingency. Most obviously because God would depend on movement in order to bring about His effects. More subtly, however, is the sneaking suggestion that God, like His creatures, would theoretically take on all the marks of what is termed a subordinate cause. Johnson seems to think God is the “moved mover,” which Bernard Wuellner defines as “a cause of motion in another which is itself also moved by another while imparting motion.”[1]

To suggest motion in God as requisite to motion in the creature has three main (read: fatal) implications:

1) God is an admixture of act and potency. He is in act, that is, He exists. But there is some potential or capacity in God to be actualized prior to and for the purpose of creation. This means God is dependent upon two parts or principles to be what He is—act and potency.

2) God is conditioned by motion. If God wants to create, He is required to move from one state of being, “not-Creator,” to another state of being, “Creator.” In other words, given motion in God, (1) comes back to haunt us, that God is composed of act and potency. Motion, after all, is but the actualization of a potential.

3) God is conditioned by His creation. For God to bring about creation, He must undergo motion, and this implies creation determines or conditions God similar to how a builder is conditioned by His building project. His building project determines him while likewise he determines his building project. Just as the builder and his project have a give-and-take causal relationship, God is assumed to have a similar relationship to the world at large. If God would not undergo “creative motion” prior to creation, then creation is at least partially responsible for the actualization of the potential to create in God. If this is so, God would depend on His creation and would thus not be self-existent or a se.

All of this cashes out in a contingent or dependent god who relies upon that which is not God to be God. He would be composed of act and potency, two principles which make him to be what he is. He would be reliant upon motion itself as a requisite to the fulfillment of his goal. And he would be reliant on creation since, in order to create, he must meet certain conditions, i.e. motion. Creation determines, defines, or conditions him, thereby decimating the doctrine of self-existence (cf. Ex. 3:14).

On these grounds, any kind of coherent theism would be impossible. And, if I might employ the help of Anselm’s ontological argument: If there is something greater than a being conditioned to create through act/potency, the actualization of a potential (movement), etc., then that Being is God, and not the one conditioned by motion and creatures. I can conceive of a God that does not require motion in order to create, that is, a God that is actus purus. Thus, the moving, conditioned god is not God. The unconditioned Conditioner is God.

Conclusion

The issues raised by Johnson are not really issues at all. His problems with classical theism assume a certain order of dogmatic theology classical theists would consider incoherent. God, as pure act, cannot be subjugated to categories and properties proper only to contingency and finitude. If God is pure act, unchangeable, and infinite, it follows that He is the unconditioned Conditioner of all that is not God. While creation is a means by which we derive creaturely or ectypal knowledge of God, it itself is not the measure of God. Subordinate causation, i.e. moved movers, a feature of contingency, should not be projected upon God simply due to the profound and inescapable experience creatures have with them. Instead, features proper to contingency ought to be unquestioningly removed from the divine essence so that we do not erroneously promote the “creationalization” of God.

Much of the above, admittedly, addresses a confusion, the likes of which result from rhetoric more so than real disagreement on technicalia. I believe there is some real terminological confusion occurring in this conversation and a severe case of an overcommitment to thesis. Much of this could be resolved if Johnson and others were more amicable to the idea of two-way communication, dialogue, and debate on the issue. For my part, this offer will always stand.

Resources:

[1] Bernard Wuellner, Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy, (Fitzwilliam: Loreto Publications, 2012), 78.

An Elementary Essay Contra Modal Collapse

An Elementary Essay Contra Modal Collapse

If God is simple, it follows He isn’t made up of anything more basic than Himself to be what He is. In other words, God is non-composed. All that is in God is God. An apparent difficulty arises, however, when we consider God’s will as it relates to the created world. If God is simple, it follows that the divine essence is identical to divine will. There is no real distinction between essence and existence, nor is there any real distinction between essence and attributes. The apparent trouble comes whenever the studious mind considers God’s will to create and creation itself. 

Modal Collapse

If God and God’s will to create are one and the same, creation would apparently be necessary rather than contingent since it would necessarily flow from a will that could not be otherwise. He and His will to create the world are one and the same thing. This means the created world is just as necessary as He is, or so it is assumed. This breakdown or reduction of God’s essential nature into the creation, and the creation into God’s essential nature, is referred to as a modal collapse. According to modal collapse, divine simplicity entails the eradication of modality, or the reduction of real ontological distinction between Creator and creature.

In order to escape this problem, theologians and philosophers have opted for a theology proper exclusionary of divine simplicity. There are real faculties, attributes, and mental realities in God that are not identified with God’s essence. If, for example, we distinguish between God’s essence and God’s will, it would seem we have room to maintain the necessity of the essence while separating such necessity from an act of will (since essence and will would be really distinct from one another). While this may seem to open up some room for an escape from the modal collapse problem mentioned above, it really only kicks the can up the road. For example, how does making a real distinction between essence and will genuinely resist a modal collapse? It would seem that if the essence is necessary, the will following from it would be necessary. And if the will following from the divine essence is necessary, the creation it wills is necessary also. Therefore, the problem of modal collapse seems to remain. No matter how many dominoes we add, they will all fall just the same.

Two Species of Necessity

However, this brief essay is not a critique of the modal collapse objection, per se. Instead, I want to show how the modal collapse problem falls short in presenting a real problem for divine simplicity on grounds of a categorical misunderstanding related to the concept of necessity. Modal collapse, in other words, is only an apparent problem. The concern of modal collapse, and those who reject simplicity in light of it, is misplaced. The failure to distinguish between two key species of necessity has led to the assumption that necessity must always be absolute. Absolute necessity applies to that which has its existence through itself rather than another, or that which must exist given some antecedent. But there is another species of necessity which entails contingency upon an antecedent condition. A necessity of consequent or supposition applies to an effect which necessarily follows from some cause by reason of the cause itself. In the expression, “If (X), therefore, (Z),” (Z) is contingent in that it depends upon the prior condition (X). However, given (X), (Z) necessarily follows.

God is metaphysically necessary, and creation might be said to be a necessity of consequent following from the nature of God. Given the nature of God, creation both is, and is a certain way. Some would say this eradicates divine freedom. However, divine freedom must be defined according to divine nature. Freedom is not the ability to work apart from nature, but in accord with nature. Given that God’s nature is that which none greater can be conceived, it just is archetypal freedom. This particular creation is that which follows from God’s boundless divine freedom. If one were to ask, “Could God have not created the world, or could He have created a different kind of world?” We can still answer, “Yes.” God, who is power itself, could have created any number of worlds, or no world at all. But because this power is also love, knowledge, wisdom, etc., this particular creation is the creation God decreed. And because this creation is an effect of God, it is, by definition, not absolutely necessary—it doesn’t exist through itself, nor was God bound to create it by some other reason. But it is a necessity of consequent following from the antecedent condition of God’s good, wise, and glorious essence.

Thomas Aquinas on the Two Kinds of Necessity

Thomas Aquinas conceives of two basic kinds of necessity along the same lines we’ve drawn above. “There are two ways in which a thing is said to be necessary, namely, absolutely, and by supposition.”[1] According to Aquinas, God wills some things absolutely in that He ordains certain created means which are necessary unto the end. But He wills some things suppositionally in that what He does will, He cannot not will, “Yet it can be necessary by supposition, for supposing that He wills a thing, then He is unable not to will it, as His will cannot change.”[2] That which is willed, i.e. from eternity past, may not be necessarily requisite to some end (absolute), but it is willed by God and therefore cannot be unwilled since God’s will does not change, per the doctrine of divine immutability.

Francis Turretin on the Two Kinds of Necessity

 Francis Turretin receives this same understanding of necessity when he writes:

On the state of the question observe: (1) that necessity is twofold; one absolute, which simply and by itself and its own nature cannot be otherwise, as that God is good, just, etc. The other hypothetical, which is not so of itself and simply such but that it could be otherwise, but yet on the positing of something it necessarily follows and could not be otherwise; as for example, if you posit that God predestinates Jacob to salvation, it is necessary that Jacob should be saved, namely on the hypothesis of the decree.[3]

The concern of modal collapse fails to distinguish properly between the above two modes of necessity cited by both Aquinas and Turretin. If the only possible conception of necessity was that of absolute necessity, modal collapse objections may succeed at presenting a legitimate problem for divine simplicity which would imply patheistic undertones. If God essence and will are identical, meaning God’s will is eternal and immutable, it follows that creation is necessary but only by reason of supposition. Creation is necessary in that God has willed it from eternity and what God’s will is is—apart from  any variation or shadow of turning (Jas. 1:17). Thus, part of the modal collapse concern is readily granted by the classical theist, albeit not without qualification.

How Is Creation Distinct From the Divine Essence?

Creation continues to be distinct from the divine essence, and it also continues to be finite in duration (it began to exist). It is contingently reliant upon God and His will. Creation, therefore, exists necessarily but only conditionally, hypothetically, or suppositionally. Creation, as a work, is not itself representative of a change, but is the primary production of change itself. Agreeing once more with Aquinas, Turretin writes, “Now although creation is not formally a divine volition, still on that account there is no change made in God by it… It is made without any motion and proceeds from his eternal efficacious and omnipotent will.”[4] Thus, it isn’t necessary to opine some change in the being or will of God in light of His creative work. Nor can any change or motion of will be introduced within the divine essence apart from logically implying some contingency or dependency in God. Thus, the divine essence and the creation remain distinct upon the sufficient reason of the conditionality and contingency of the creation as its creation and being depends entirely upon divine will and power. But whereas the divine will and power are necessary, immutable, and unchangeable (being one with the divine essence), the creation—by a suppositional necessity—follows from it.

Conclusion

No matter the position one takes, the modal collapse problem largely fails to consider the various historical understandings of necessity. There is indeed another way to conceive of God, necessity, and creation apart from the assumed model usually taken for granted in modern theology proper. God is necessary Being—He exists through Himself, not through another. Moreover, some things God wills are absolutely necessary, e.g. God necessarily wills His own good. But as we consider creation, that which is other than God, we must understand it as necessary by reason of supposition. It is a “contingent necessity”; contingent in that it depends upon an antecedent cause; necessary in that it follows from that cause which is unchangeable and eternal, i.e. the will of God.

Resources:

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, vol. 1, (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1981), 104.

[2] Ibid., 105.

[3] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1992), 218-19.

[4] Ibid., 433.

The Decline of Natural Theology

The Decline of Natural Theology

There isn’t a single place upon the timeline of history to which we might point in an attempt make an historical demonstration of natural theology’s demise. History is like this. The causes of things are just that, causes. Rarely is it possible to locate a singular cause for why this or that philosophy or tradition eventually fell out of vogue (or came into vogue for that matter). Usually these things occur through process. Ideas have consequences, but sometimes those consequences hide themselves from the general population for decades behind the doors of the ivory tower. This essay is in the service of defending and thereby promoting the idea that natural theology is indeed valid, that is, it is a legitimate species of knowledge available to both unregenerate and regenerate persons. But before such a defense can be made, a brief survey must be undertaken of the ideas and criticisms leading to the erosion of confidence in natural theology. Yet, as noted above, this survey will struggle to locate the demise of natural theology in any one place upon the historical timeline. Such an overview, therefore, is more like observing a mere piece of tapestry woven through with complex details and countless colors that we can neither observe nor display in full.

The 17th century will serve as a key historical point of entry. René Descartes was a French philosopher born in 1596. Political and theological reformation continued to hang heavy in the continental European air. In his brief volume, Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes undercuts the entire pre-modern project of natural theology. He writes:

Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences.[1]

The would-be demise of natural theology resides in Descartes’ conception of a “foundation,” that is, it was epistemological and thus ideological in nature. He does not here have in mind an ontological or metaphysical basis that would be external to himself and thus true notwithstanding his idea of it, nor is he referring to axioms common to all men which themselves may be said to be self-evident and thus mind-independent. 

Instead, Descartes wants to have a foundational idea from which he can deduce other ideas, and this process is supposed to result in a proper collection of opinions or beliefs about the world. Frederick Wilhelmsen describes Destartes’ epistemological commitment as follows, “Intuition furnishes the mind with a set of ideas whose objectivity cannot be doubted. Deduction is the tool whereby the mind expands its knowledge by moving rationally from the ideas to every truth implicitly contained within them.”[2] From Descartes’ foundational cogito ergo sum he would seek to intuitively and deductively construct a valid system of knowledge with as few assumptions or false opinions as possible. This would only set the stage for the later David Hume’s skepticism and Immanuel Kant’s subsequent idealism which included an epistemology committed to central ideas inclusive of the infinite whole of reality. Simply put—a worldview.

Situating Knowledge Within the Historical Picture

Prior to Descartes, in medieval, Reformed, and post-Reformation thinkers, reality itself was understood as the source of knowledge. Knowledge was not so much understood to be a collection of ideas which hopefully approximate the context of the subject. Knowledge was seen as the apprehension or abstraction of the real essences of things in the world. Creation was understood as something that inevitably informed the intellect of the rational soul. As Peter Martyr Virmigli writes concerning the creature’s knowledge of God:

For by the workmanship of this world, they knew God to be most mightie. Further, they knew by the beautie, shew, & distinction of all things, that so great a power was administered by a most high providence and wisdom. Also the commoditie and profit of things created taught them the Maiestie of God, which consisteth chieflie in this, that he dooth good unto all things.[3]

Though such words are in direct reference to theistic proof, the assumption of how one comes to knowledge is apparent. Objects or things serve as the medium through which knowledge comes. He further states, “And these knowledges of God being naturallie ingrafted in us by God, are every daie more and more confirmed and made perfect by the observation of things created.”[4] But for Descartes, knowledge of the world must begin within the self, that is, idealistically. From the Cartesian conception of knowledge would eventually come historical worldview theory. A person’s knowledge of the world begins with a single concept which must account for the whole. The difference between the pre-modern and modern epistemologies, represented by Virmigly and Descartes respectively, could not be more different. For Virmigly, human knowledge entails having something of the objective world in the intellect. Knowledge, thought Vermigli, originates in the things to be known rather than in the knower.

Worldview theory made its official debut in the thought of Immanuel Kant. The approach of worldview theory is summed up well by Dr. J. V. Fesko, “The rise of philosophical idealism was one of the reasons why the book of nature was largely set aside, namely the idea that one must have a comprehensive view of life and the world that has a solitary starting point unfolding into a holistic system of thought.”[5] Such an approach is incompatible with the classical notion of natural theology since natural theology takes for granted common notions. Thomas Aquinas notes, “the truth is not known to all as regards the conclusions, but only as regards the principles which are called common notions.”[6] Common notions are principles common to all men in that they are not conclusions but principles that cannot be demonstrated, e.g. the laws of logic, principle of causality, etc. On the contrary, however, Greg Bahnsen, quoting Cornelius Van Til who followed Kant on this point, writes:

The absolute contrast between the Christian and the non-Christian in the field of knowledge is said to be that of principle. Full recognition is made of the fact that in spite of this absolute contrast of principle, there is relative good in those who are evil… So far as men self-consciously work from this principle they have no notion in common with the believer…[7]

The difference is decisive. On the one hand, Aquinas, who is in favor of natural theology, asserts common notions. On the other hand, Van Til, who would come to be known as an important Christian proponent of worldview thinking in the 20th century, rejected common notions on the basis of worldview theory. If he granted common notions at all, such were understood to be contingent upon and defined by an epistemological state rather than the objective world.

Conclusion

Following the consummation of Descartes’ approach in the Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century, and more relevantly, as those assumptions were absorbed into Christian thought, common notions, and thus natural theology, are now generally assumed to be invalid. As the reader will hopefully see, this has been largely taken for granted rather than demonstrated. And if a demonstration contra natural theology has occurred, it has usually occurred upon the basis of some misunderstanding of the principles involved (cf. John Stewart Mill’s mis-definition of the principle of causality and Bertrand Russell’s appropriation of it in, Why I Am Not A Christian). Most criticisms of natural theology and the arguments for God’s existence commonly marshalled within natural theology are criticisms which inadvertently domesticate the proofs thereby removing them from their context within Christian prolegomena. As a result, criticisms of the proofs usually proceed on the false and unexamined assumption that they are inherently rationalistic. Moreover, it is often thought that David Hume produced a valid and sound refutation of causal reasoning which, if true, would render the proofs entirely invalid. Thus, the domestication of natural theology and the validation of skepticism are two major reasons for the cultural demise of natural theology, especially within the Christian domain.

Resources:

[1] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, (p. 12). E-Bookarama. Kindle Edition.

[2] Frederick Wilhelmsen, Man’s Knowledge of Reality, (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2021), 10.

[3] Peter Martyr Virmigli, Common Places, vol. I, (Coppell: Reformation Classic, 2021), 24.

[4] Ibid., 26.

[5] Fesko, J. V., Reforming Apologetics (p. 6). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part I-II, Q. 94, Art. 4, (Claremont: Coyote Canyon Press, 2010).

[7] Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, Kindle Edition. Loc. 608.

 

The Way Jesus Uses Nature

The Way Jesus Uses Nature

Appeals to natural revelation, and thus the assumption of a natural theology, are rife throughout the didactic work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Natural theology, you’ll remember, is the “what,” whilst natural theology refers to our exploration and knowledge of the “what.” If natural revelation is known to any extent, there is a natural theology.

In His parables and teaching illustrations, Jesus regularly appeals to nature. Whether it be human ethics (Matt. 18:28-35), economics (Lk. 12:41-48), ornithology (Lk. 12:24), geology (Lk. 6:8), or botany (Matt. 6:28, 30), Jesus is not afraid to use His creation for the purposes of teaching His audience. Since this is the example of our Lord, we also shouldn’t shrink from doing the same. Keep in mind that Jesus makes these types of appeals to both believer and unbeliever, to His disciples and to the magnitude or crowd.

A (Low) Key Text

In Luke 12:1-12, Jesus addresses the crowd. He admonishes them, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” Obviously, Jesus assumes these people can basically apprehend what He is saying to them. This is an “innumerable multitude,” the lion’s share of whom ultimately turn their backs on Him, even lobbying for His death. It appears they were not regenerate people. And even if they were regenerated at some later point, at this current time-stamp in the gospel narrative, readers should not get the sense Jesus understands this multitude to be indwelt by the Spirit in any measure—Pentecost debates aside.

In vv. 6-7, He appeals to two different concepts: human dignity and basic economics—both of which I would argue fall under natural law. Moreover, Jesus makes the assumption His audience has a basic grasp on these two things, and this is abundantly clear when we examine His use of rhetorical inquiry, “Are not five sparrows sold for two copper coins?” The question is Socratic in method, and the price of the sparrows is proportional to the value of the sparrows’ lives. Rhetorical questions such as these are intended to play upon facts already known and assumed by the interlocutor. This is why Socratic questioning is so effective. It forces the other person to answer a question to which they already know the answer. Jesus’ audience, if they would have been allowed to verbalize a collective answer, would have said, “Of course!” And perhaps some did. In which case Jesus’ answer was, “And not one of them is forgotten before God.” Sparrows are cheap. But God’s knowledge is so great, nothing escapes its view.

In v. 7, Jesus says, “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Why is it that Jesus could utilize the assumption of His audience, that there is gradation in life-values, from lower order lifeforms to higher? Why is it assumed that life has value at all? Why should God knowing the number of hairs on these people’s heads be a desirable thing? Why should they care if they are valuable in God’s eyes or not. The only explanation is natural theology. These people know, through natural revelation, that God exists, that He explains their existence, that because of this they are valuable, and that God cares for them. There is a natural benevolence God has for all creatures, and this is seen in His providence—when animals and people alike are provided for. They are valuable in God’s eyes. However, Jesus is about to reveal God’s primal benevolence in Himself when He says, “Also I say to you, whoever confesses Me before men, him the Son of Man also will confess before the angels of God. But he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God (Lk. 12:8-9).”

Jesus further adds, “And anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but to him who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven (v. 10).” He is here preparing His audience for the administration of Word and Spirit that would soon tear through that area from the mouths of the apostles, post-Pentecost. Jesus has essentially moved from natural principles, to the gospel, and to the penalty for refusing the gospel. In vv. 11-12, He addresses those who will believe the gospel with the practical application of the theology He taught from nature, i.e. the Father’s benevolence toward those whom He loves, “Now when they bring you to the synagogues and magistrates and authorities, do not worry about how or what you should answer, or what you should say. For the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”

Conclusion

Apart from natural theology, the assumptions Jesus makes throughout Luke 12:1-12 would be unintelligible to His very own audience. If they could not know that which God has revealed through creation, be it Himself or His law, the first half of the passage wouldn’t make sense, and the second half, consisting of supernatural theology, would be unintelligible. This is just one example where our great Teacher utilizes various aspects of His Father’s world to prepare His hearers for that which He Himself reveals in addition to nature, that is, the beatitude one enjoys in and because of Him alone. Apart from a natural knowledge of God and His will, Jesus’ words would have simply fallen on deaf ears. But nowhere does Jesus make the assumption His audience is ignorant of what He speaks, and He everywhere makes the assumption that they can.

The Order of Theology, Classical, and Presuppositional Apologetics

The Order of Theology, Classical, and Presuppositional Apologetics

Before understanding either of these apologetical routes, we need to understand what apologetics is. Apologetics refers to the defense (apologia) of the Christian faith, at least in this context. The landmark text bolstering the need for apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear…” Briefly stated, apologetics is the science of answering those who question why we believe what we believe as Christians.

Subordinating Apologetics

Historically, apologetics, while scientific in nature, has been subjected to the queen science of theology, usually falling under the locus of prolegomena—the area of theology that asks the question, “Is theology possible?” To which the answer would be made in the affirmative, and the existence of God would therefore also be affirmed along with the theistic proofs in demonstration of that affirmation. As time progressed, however, apologetics came to be seen less as a subjugated science to theology, instead being understood as a driving force of theology.

Such a confusion of order has also resulted in the mixture of what used to be called the preambles of the faith with the articles of the faith themselves. Apologetics, in terms of order, happened prior to and distinct from the articles of faith. But in elevating the significance of apologetics nearly to the level of a stand-alone science which informs our theology, even the articles of the Christian faith, those things which must be known through special revelation and are necessary for our redemption are now influenced by apologetic methodology.

This issue has occurred in all three main apologetical schools of thought—classical, evidential, and presuppositional. This problem, therefore, is less an issue of apologetic method and more an issue of how we understand theology in general, and its placement among other related disciplines. However, presuppositionalism’s very genes demand this methodological confusion take place, and it is this I would like to—at long last—eventually address in this post. But we have some additional housekeeping to do—

Defining and Distinguishing Theology

The term theology, taken by itself, means something like “the study of God.” However, historically its definition is more precise. William Ames writes, “[Divinity] is called a doctrine, not as if the name of Intelligence, Science, Sapience, Art, or Prudence were not hereto belonging; for all these are in every accurate Discipline, and especially Divinity (Marrow, I. I. 2).” Peter van Mastricht likewise says, “Christian theology unites theory with practice, and is ‘a knowledge of the truth that is according to godliness’ (Titus 1:1) (Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol. 1, 78-79).”

Typically, there would be what Van Mastricht calls “the prolegomena and the system.” Prolegomena precedes the system (of dogma) and includes the mixed articles—articles of knowledge which are revealed in both nature and Scripture. Natural theology is included in Van Mastricht’s prolegomena, but he also subsumes it under the genus of “Christian theology.” It is here apologetics should be located, as part of natural theology. It is, after all, traditionally set forth in the form of the theistic proofs, a la., the Protestant scholastics like Van Mastricht and Turretin. However, the Reformed orthodox understood this natural theology, which I will here equate to the true sub-science of apologetics, not as an absolute or causal foundation for that which comes after, but as nothing more than an instrument to be used not only in defense of our believe in a God, but also in our further exposition of the Scriptures. Richard Muller states:

Witsius can even declare that the faint glimmerings of the natural light provide a “foundation” on which the gospel can build: “for as grace supposes nature, which it perfects; so the truths revealed in the gospel, have for their foundation those made known by the light of nature.” Although Witsius here addresses calling and, specifically, the character of the natural knowledge that seems to call human beings to God, only to leave them without excuse in their sins, he also, like Turretin and Owen, raises the issue of the positive relationship of natural reason and the truths it knows to revelation and supernatural theology (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, 301).

In the modern situation, apologetics is neither included in or identified with natural theology, which falls under the prolegomena. Instead, it is largely viewed as a science unto itself which is either devoid of any relationship to true Christian theology, or is identified with true Christian dogmatics itself, and thus ends up serving a definitional hermeneutical force in the contemporary exposition of the Bible. Either of these extremes loosely correspond to rationalism or idealism, respectively.

Classical Apologetics

I have just alluded to the classical model which views theology as an ordered science inclusive of natural theology or apologetics, to be located in prolegomena. Methodologically, this just is classical theology, and it rightfully houses (and should determine) what has come to be known as classical apologetics. Because classical apologetics and natural theology are intimately interwoven, we should understand how the Protestant Reformed orthodox have understood natural theology. To do this, I will once more defer to Peter van Mastricht. He begins his section on natural theology by saying, “Christian theology does not exclude natural theology… but includes it just as a larger quantity includes a smaller one (Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol. 1, 77).”

Within this same discussion, he notes its fourfold use, which does not disagree substantially from the uses identified by Francis Turretin. Van Mastricht says:

We note that natural theology has four chief uses. (1) The first has to do with God, who by means of it renders the impious without excuse (Rom. 1:20). (2) The second has to do with the pagans and atheists, who are most powerfully refuted by it (Acts 17:24-26; Ps. 8:2-3; Matt. 6:26). (3) The third has to do with revealed theology, which, at least with regard to us, is confirmed to an amazing degree when we discover that it agrees completely with natural theology. (4) The fourth has to do with us, who root ourselves chiefly in the recognition of revealed truth, that we discern that nature itself applauds it. And this is so even in our pursuit of the good, where nature itself calls us in the same direction as revelation.

Classical apologetics, therefore, should be seen as nothing less nor nothing more than an application natural theology.

Of course, classical apologetics and natural theology have themselves been understood in different ways. The Natural Theology of William Paley is much different than the natural theology found in Puritans like Peter van Mastricht. And this plays into the confusion between what is now called evidentialism and the historical understanding of classical apologetics. Whereas evidentialism argues for the probable existence of God based on one’s examination of natural effects (which then leads to a speculative conclusion), classicalism argues for the necessity of the existence of God, not from a mere examination of natural effects (think Paley’s watchmaker), but from the general rule to a necessary conclusion. Thomas Aquinas’ first way, for example, begins “It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion.”

This argument is formally deductive, arguing from general premises to a certain and necessary conclusion, should the premises hold. This is different from evidentialism in that evidentialism takes particular things, adds them together, and upon amassing enough evidence, draws a probable implication. Classicalism argues from generalities, which do not necessarily need to be true of every particular, in order to draw a necessary conclusion. This is why Thomas begins, “some things are in motion.” Evidentialism would not argue from the universal of “motion,” neither would it argue from gradation or teleology. It would instead look at particular artifacts and point to how complex they seem, how designed they must be, and how they confirm the biblical account.

Natural theology, classically understood, makes it’s object God as He is made known through His effects using laws of reason, i.e. logic, that could not be otherwise. It does not presume to validate the biblical record, though it bears witness to it, nor does it demonstrate faith (otherwise faith would not be faith, but reason). We are not dependent upon some deep acquaintance natural theology it for warranting our beliefs in the articles of faith, though it may assume or even contain means by which we ascend to such articles of faith.

Presuppositional Apologetics

Presuppositionalism identifies the project of apologetics with biblical theology, such that the Bible is our apologetic and our apologetic is the Bible. Greg Bahnsen writes:

The Christian apologist must not trade away the certainty of knowing God for a probability or subjective moral conviction; he must unashamedly presuppose the truth of the Word of Christ in Scripture as congruous with the inescapable self-revelation of God in nature and man’s constitution (Presuppositional Apologetics, p. 5 ).

Rather than there being a taxis or order in the science of theology in general beginning with prolegomena prior to reaching the doctrine of Scripture, the doctrine of Scripture, according to Bahnsen, must be consonant with prolegomena. I want to be careful. The Bible can and does inform our prolegomena, and our prolegomena cannot contradict it. But our understanding of the Bible, and our rules of interpretation, must likewise be informed by prolegomena, e.g. the assumption theology is possible, God exists, etc.

As pious as this may sound, there is a devastating rebound effect from presuppositionalism not just on apologetics, but upon Scripture and the doctrines of the faith in general. If Scripture and prolegomena are essentially the same thing, if they are put in the same place and are to that extent indistinguishable, the Bible may be prolegomena, but the prolegomena also becomes the Bible (for better or worse). This is a massive problem because prolegomena would usually be the place where philosophical presuppositions are disclosed and defended, a la., natural theology. But because presuppositionalism, in accordance with its name, presupposes the Bible itself, any philosophical assumptions being made are either not admitted or are severely ignored, and then the interpretation of Scripture is subjected to such unadmitted precommitments which run the risk of skewing the interpreter’s approach to God’s Word.

If the presuppositionalist wants to discuss philosophical commitments prior to the text of Scripture, it would then follow “the Word of Christ” is not being presupposed in such a case. In such an event, there would be a prolegomena (something said before) prior to Scripture. It is perhaps the presuppositionalist’s collapse of the distinctions made within theology that accounts for the contemporary issues we face concerning the doctrine of God. When presuppositions that come prior to one’s examination of the text of Scripture are ignored or not admitted, it is easier to read the text with blurry lenses.

Presuppositional apologetics, far from being a mere apologetic, is an entire philosophical apparatus concerning the nature of divine and human knowledge and the construction of theological system. Such a system, which banishes any discussion had prior to Scripture and the articles of the faith, is bound to drive one’s understanding of the articles of faith through said epistemological lens. If this epistemological lens is Cartesian, Kantian, or Hegelian, those holding it would not know. And what’s worse, the doctrine of Scripture would necessarily be understood through this particular epistemic filter. The very assertion, “We must presuppose Scripture along with God’s self-disclosure in nature” would make it impossible to evaluate if the one attempting to do so even understood what Scripture was. Such a definition would be assumed or presupposed, and thus not allowed scrutiny. Who is to say, for example, a person’s idea of Scripture—which they allegedly presuppose—is actually a bad worldly philosophical assumption. How would they know such a thing unless there were some method by which they could rightly place the doctrine of the Word of God in relationship to the whole of the Christian faith?

Presuppositionalism allows for the employment of theistic proofs, but not in a discussion prior to the doctrine of Scripture, that is, as part of prolegomena. Thus the proofs, and any natural knowledge of God (innate or otherwise), are not allowed to inform one’s understanding of Scripture. This is why some have decided to apply the  anthropological language in Scripture, i.e. “God walking in the garden in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8),” directly to the simple and immutable essence of God which results in a denial of immutability and simplicity. There is no divine metaphysics informing one’s understanding of biblical language in this scenario. Scripture itself does not disclose a philosophy of language so, again, on the presuppositional scheme, a philosophy of language is presupposed, rather than consciously examined in any measure, and then the Scriptures are subjected to it. All the while, the person making this mistake has the best of intentions, telling everyone, “We presuppose the Word of God!”

This results in devastating consequences, and explains the origin of countless heresies over the last 2,000 years. Again, it sounds pious to say, “We presuppose the Bible.” But the practical effect is the subjugation of the meaning of Scripture to one’s unexamined epistemological assumptions. To use their language, it is to cloak a “worldview” in biblical categories whilst refusing to examine that worldview while at the same time presupposing said worldview when reading and interpreting the Bible.

Conclusion

I want to be very clear that I do not mean natural theology itself is the foundation upon which and the lens through which all Scripture ought to be viewed, though it does entail instruments by which we understand and exposit the text, e.g. knowledge of God and some things about God to name a couple. The point here is the necessity of method in theology. If we neglect all method, then the order of subjects and the subjects through which we view other subjects will be confused. Hear Peter van Mastricht once more—

A method is nothing but an apt arrangement of the different topics according to the dependence they have upon each other, first with respect to themselves in how they mutually coexist, and then with respect to us in how we understanding them. This is necessary so that the method of theology corresponds not only to the topics that must be taught—by it, for example, more general matters are placed ahead of specific ones and simpler matters ahead of complex ones—but that it corresponds also to the comprehension and use of the students (Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol. 1, 69).

That last line is crucial.

Part of our current ailment is the inability for Christians to relate subjects of theology to one another in terms of their respective, causal relationships. Thus, the doctrine of God cannot inform our interpretation of Scripture, for example. Instead, it is thought, Scripture must entirely shape our doctrine of God (because it is said to be presupposed). But this is problematic because what Van Mastricht calls “the arrangement of different topics according to the dependence that have upon each other” is simply not permitted. As a result, God becomes entirely determined by one of His effects—our understanding of Scripture. Hence Arianism, Sabellianism, Anthropomorphitism, Arminianism, Socinianism, etc.

A Response to Dr. Sam Waldron

A Response to Dr. Sam Waldron

It is never a good day to disagree with Dr. Sam Waldron. In spite of our disagreements, I have leagues-worth of respect for this man, and have no desire to enter into any unnecessary disputation, especially by bringing up an article from 2019 on the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary website. However, Waldron republished the article and, apparently, shared it in light of the current debate centered around natural theology. This debate revolves around two distinct subjects which must remain distinct however related they most certainly are. The preeminent issue is the doctrine of God. The second is natural theology. Waldron’s article largely addresses the latter. Though, I am concerned because it seems as if the contemporary rejection of natural theology has more to do with some of the persons by which it was taught, a la., Thomas Aquinas. Such a vein of rejection tends to rot other concepts and categories, and the doctrine of God seems to be the first victim of the disease. Eventually, the attributes of Scripture, the Person and natures of Christ, the work of Christ, and ecclesiology will likewise fall under the revisionist blade—perhaps in the next generation or two.

In this article, I am going to interact with Thomas extensively, but only because this is the target of Waldron’s article, and also because there is some undue identification of Thomas with the issues at hand. Thomas is not the face of classical theism. But contemporary discussion appears to be leveling criticism at classical theism for Thomas’ sake. And this is no bueno. As I’ve said before, if I had to choose between giving someone Thomas or giving someone Francis Turretin, I’d give them the latter. I also would not give the young Christian a copy of the Summa Theologiae. For this reason, it is unfortunate that critics of classical theism have come at this issue because of and through Thomas Aquinas. Because now the debate revolves around a historical person and not the facts of the matter. And as such, defense of the facts are misunderstood to be defense of the persons who teach them. It’s a mess.

It appears there are three main building blocks holding up Waldron’s article. They are:

  • Thomas’ alleged rejection of God’s self-evident existence
  • Thomas’ “imperfect” view of total depravity
  • Irreconcilable differences between Calvin and Aquinas

I want to say at the outset that Thomas is not my object of defense. But unfortunately, the person and the concepts he represents have become so tightly intertwined that it would be almost irresponsible to avoid using his name. He is not “he-who-shall-not-be-named” after all, though some may think so. And there are some misunderstandings of Thomas (understandably so) which lead Waldron to oppose Calvin and Thomas in places they perhaps should not be opposed. I want to make it clear that I am not trying to cop-out by accusing Waldron of “misunderstanding.” Nor am I trying to gaslight the man. Thomas is not 200, not 400, but 800 years removed from us, and his writings are translated out of Latin. So, there are cultural, linguistic, and philosophical chasms to overcome; not only between us and him, but even between him and Calvin—who lived almost 300 years after.

With that said, we should all approach the evidence circumspectly.

Thomas’ Alleged Rejection of God’s Self-Evident Existence

Waldron writes: 

I procured and then scoured the relevant sections of his Summa Contra Gentiles and Summa Theologica.  This reading caused considerable expansion of that lecture.  It actually—in fact—expanded it into two lectures. What it did not do, however, was significantly change my understanding of Thomas Aquinas “Classical Apologetics” at all.  I concluded that basically Van Til’s presentation of Thomas was right.

Here’s one of the first issues with the article, one that may account for some of the wrong assumptions made later on about what Thomas actually believed. It is very difficult to read “relevant” sections of Aquinas and come away with an accurate characterization of what he believed on any one particular topic. This is because Thomas was in the habit of making distinctions—something emphasized in the scholastic milieu he found himself in. So, what he affirms in one place may be distinguished into two or more senses or species in another, some of which he might affirm. It is, to that effect, not a reference work. While his 13th century students would have expected this feature of his work, we less so today. One such place Waldron runs into trouble relates to the notion of “self-evidence.” He writes:

Aquinas denies that the existence of God is self-evident in both his Summa Theologica and in his Summa Contra Gentiles and rejects the above arguments. The five proofs are built, then, upon the denial of any innate knowledge of God.

I have no idea what Waldron did and did not read, but as mentioned above Thomas makes distinctions. And “self-evidence,” for Thomas, must be distinguished into two senses. In his article, Waldron attempts to understand Thomas’ thought by looking at Thomas’ characterization of objections instead of exploring how Thomas answered those objections; and then, he defers to Gordon Clark—a spurious secondary source at best. I will not deal with Clark here because that will do nothing but complicate the discussion. We are trying to understand classical theism, and now we’re trying to understand Thomas’ articulation of it—it would be a shame if we now had to try and understand Gordon Clark’s understanding of Thomas!

Waldron apparently confuses the notion of self-evidence with innate knowledge, claiming that Thomas, in denying self-evidence, automatically(?) denies innate knowledge of God. But this largely takes for granted a definition of what self-evidence even is.

As mentioned, Thomas believed there are two ways in which a thing can be “self-evident.” “A thing,” he says, “can be self-evident in either of two ways: on the one hand, self-evident in itself, though not to us; on the other, self-evident in itself, and to us (Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 2, At. 1).” But we have to remember what Thomas thought self-evidence was. By way of explanation, he says, “No one can mentally admit the opposite of what is self-evident; as the Philosopher states concerning the first principles of demonstration. But the opposite of the proposition ‘God is’ can be mentally admitted: ‘The fool said in his heart, There is no God’ (Ps. 52:1). Therefore, that God exists is not self-evident.”

When Thomas speaks of “self-evidence” he speaks of linguistic propositions, i.e. “God exists,” which may or may not be understood, but he does not subsume all knowledge under “propositional.” Much like one may reject an articulation of the formal laws of logic, they nevertheless “know” those laws through everyday employment of them. They know logic through implication, but not necessarily through inference (because they cannot be demonstrated). In that sense, the laws of logic are not “self-evident” to us, because we may not understand them propositionally. But that does not mean the laws of logic are not “self-evident” in themselves. Liberty is said to be “self-evident” in our Declaration of Independence. But it is not self-evident in that it cannot be rejected as a mental proposition (just look at our government!), but it is self-evident in and of itself.

For the medieval (and Reformed) scholastics, the knowledge situation wasn’t reduced to mental propositions. And this is why Thomas can say in the next two paragraphs, “To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude.” Interestingly, he also admits of the corruption of this knowledge when he says, “for many there are who imagine that man’s perfect good which is happiness, consists in riches, and others in pleasures, and others in something else.” Thus, man has a confused knowledge of God implanted in them because though they see the contours, they apply those contours to idols instead of glorifying God as God (Rom. 1:21).” Concerning the exegesis of Romans 1, Waldron further notes:

Listen to his argument in Summa Theologica Question 2, Article 2: “The Apostle says: ‘The invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made’ (Rm. 1:20). But this would not be unless the existence of God could be demonstrated through the things that are made; for the first thing we must know of anything is whether it exists.” Thomas takes (and the surrounding context of his assertion simply emphasizes this) Romans 1:20 to mean that the existence of God is not self-evident or implanted in man, but can be demonstrated.

We have to understand Thomas’ project. He’s writing what amounts to a systematic theology which means it proceeds discursively by nature. His proofs are largely in service of that effort. Thus, there is language in Thomas regarding the need to “demonstrate” God’s existence. But he did not think anyone and everyone needed to demonstrate God in order to know God. The simple, he thought, were justified in knowing Him through faith alone. And even the wicked, as we’ve seen, has an imperfect knowledge of God in and through the world—not because they performed an argument, but because they’ve inferred God’s existence through what has been made, both in himself (innately) and through the world (acquiescently). Francis Turretin and others would later term this “innate/acquired” knowledge.

In Romans 1:18-20, there are two types of knowledge mentioned, one innate (intuited) and another acquired through the works of God. Both Francis Turretin and Thomas Watson include both of these general “ways” of knowing God in their work. And many more names could be added to that duo (cf. Stephen Charnock). This is because they saw a twofold natural knowledge (theologia naturalis) of God in Romans 1:18-21 and elsewhere. The text reads:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

Notice the phrase, “what may be known of God is manifest in them.” It is here we find biblical precedent for an innate knowledge. However, we should be careful not to confuse innate knowledge with the notion of immediate knowledge. Instead we should understand it as intuited knowledge. This knowledge is, of course, not justifiable to the outside world and cannot, in that sense, be “demonstrated” to others. For demonstration, the works of God must be considered. It is from these works derive acquired knowledge of God. Precedent for this acquired knowledge of God is found in the phrase, “being understood by the things that are made.” Another word for “understood” is “perceived.” And, the term “by” or “through” is an instrumental dative, signifying discursus—a process which, when made explicit through formal representation, we call demonstration or argument. Even so, demonstration is not how a person comes to this acquired knowledge absolutely. They infer it internally, sometimes nearly instantaneously—putting this or that together to form a conclusion. In some ways, it’s no slower than hearing the coffee timer beep only to conclude, “the coffee is done!” Demonstration is the art of taking that implicit process and making it explicit for the sake of justifying to others its truth.

Thomas’ “Imperfect” View of Total Depravity

There is much Dr. Waldron has to say about Thomas’ reception of Augustine. But I am not going to delve into that conversation because I think with the above clarification, one could go back and see there is a great deal of reception of Augustine in Thomas. Thomas did not reject every sense of implanted knowledge, but would have rejected the Platonic “pre-downloaded” propositions. Francis Turretin departs from this idea as well, when he goes so far as to call man a “tabulae rasae” from birth, without relative or propositional knowledge, though not without knowledge absolutely (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, 1.3).

Waldron further contends that Thomas rejects, or at least has an “imperfect” view, of total depravity when he writes:

Similarly, Aquinas also seems to have held confused and imperfect views of total depravity.  Sin, in fact, does not seem to occupy an important place in Thomas’s writings.  In Gilson’s index there is no entry for sin, depravity, the fall, or folly.  For a discussion of Thomas’s view of sin, one must consult his doctrine of free will and grace. It is not surprising, then, Thomas argues that natural light is sufficient for natural knowledge. Consequently, human nature is not altogether corrupted by sin.

Sin appears well over 1,000 times in Thomas’ Summa Theologiae, and figures heavily into his theology. So, I am not certain why Waldron thinks otherwise. One possible reason could be the somewhat alien terminology employed by Thomas to discuss original sin and its effects. Chances are, most reading this have no clue what the term fomes means (and neither did I). Fomes literally renders to “fuel,” and is sometimes called “concupiscence (cf. Calvin).” It is the effect of original sin, and whilst grace works to mortify it, it will never be totally removed in this life.

The term concupiscence is a term shared by both Aquinas and John Calvin. Calvin himself says:

For which reason Aristotle truly taught, that in the appetite there is a pursuit and rejection corresponding in some degree to affirmation and negation in the intellect, (Aristot. Ethic. Lib. 6 sec. 2.) Moreover, it will be seen in another place, (Book 2 c. 2 see. 12-26,) how surely the intellect governs the will. Here we only wish to observe, that the soul does not possess any faculty which may not be duly referred to one or other of these members. And in this way we comprehend sense under intellect. Others distinguish thus: They say that sense inclines to pleasure in the same way as the intellect to good; that hence the appetite of sense becomes concupiscence and list, while the affection of the intellect becomes will (Institutes, 15.7).

The final part of the above quotation is Calvin’s basic articulation and agreement with the metaphysics underlying Thomas’ own view of fomes. For Thomas, the lower appetites of the soul, which included concupiscence as that faculty of pursuing desire, e.g. inclination of sensuality, conflicts with the higher powers, namely man’s intellect and will—enslaving both (we become brutes in our sin). This is more foundational to Thomas’ model of depravity, but in terms of depravity itself, Thomas is very clear:

The prudence of the flesh cannot be subject to the law of God as regards action; since it inclines to actions contrary to the Divine law: yet it is subject to the law of God, as regards passion; since it deserves to suffer punishment according to the law of Divine justice.

According to Thomas, a thing may be subjected to the eternal law in one of two ways: by way of knowledge and by way of action. But he says:

Both ways, however, are imperfect, and to a certain extent destroyed, in the wicked; because in them the natural inclination to virtue is corrupted by vicious habits, and, moreover, the natural knowledge of good is darkened by passions and habits of sin. But in the good both ways are found more perfect: because in them, besides the natural knowledge of good, there is the added knowledge of faith and wisdom; and again, besides the natural inclination to good, there is the added motive of grace and virtue (Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q. 93, Art. 6).

This is a clear expression of depravity, and man’s desperate need for grace. Now, I do not want to be misunderstood. Thomas did not hold to forensic justification, but only mystical and sacramental justification wherein a person is ontologically made righteous or good through infused “charity.” Justification, for Thomas, was not a legal declaration, but a metaphysically “analytic” reality. Instead of God seeing us in and with His Son and on that basis declaring us to be righteous (synthetic justification), God, thought Thomas, judges us to actually be righteous in ourselves as the result of infused, sacramental grace (analytic justification). This is a massive dividing wall between us and him—and on this Dr. Waldron and I can heartily agree. Nevertheless, Thomas believes man is wicked and inclined to all sorts of evil, such that he’s comfortable using words like “destroyed” in terms of man’s ability to submit to God. Though there are nuances, one should not make the mistake of assuming Thomas was altogether discontinued from later Reformed thinkers on this issue.

Irreconcilable Differences Between Calvin and Aquinas

Of course there are vast differences between Calvin and Thomas. This is not in dispute. But Waldron locates those differences in odd places owing largely, I believe, to an anachronistic application of Van Tillianism (idealism) to their thought.

First, I would urge that we do not fall into the trap of making Calvin the measure of all Reformed orthodoxy. He is not. Second, what Calvin and Thomas actually disagree on are not necessarily what Waldron concerns himself with in his article. We have already seen there are some significant marks Waldron is missing which limits how effective he might be in contrasting these two thinkers. For example, he writes:

First, Calvin identifies himself with a theological tradition in regard to the knowledge of God which Thomas rejects.  Thomas rejects the notion that the knowledge of the existence of God is naturally implanted. He argues, as we have seen, that strictly speaking the knowledge of God is not self-evident. He admits: “To know God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us …” Yet he says that this is “not to know absolutely that God exists, just as to know that someone is approaching is not to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter that is approaching.” He goes on in the next article to assert: “Hence, the existence of God, in so far as it is not self-evident to us, can be demonstrated from those of His effects which are known to us.”

“Calvin identifies himself with a theological tradition in regard to the knowledge of God which Thomas rejects.” This is simply not true, as we’ve seen. Could there be varying degrees to which Calvin and Thomas view implanted or innate knowledge, respectively? Of course. But it cannot be said the former accepts implanted knowledge while the latter altogether rejects it. Waldron himself notes the area in question, but he then implies this isn’t enough. Why? Does not even Cornelius Van Til understand the relationship between his proximate and ultimate epistemological starting points this way? As soon as man has knowledge of himself, he has knowledge of God. As soon as man grips his own beatific purpose in a general way, which all rational men do throughout their whole lives, they know something of God—the outer contours, we might say. What are the contents of innate knowledge? If Thomas’ seminal and imperfect implanted knowledge is not enough, what would be? A full-fledged doctrine of the Trinity?

No matter the nuances between Calvin and Aquinas on this point, they both confessed models of an inner natural knowledge (innate natural theology according to Turretin). An unfortunate feature of Waldron’s survey is his total lack of interaction with Thomas’ biblical commentaries. And this was a defect in Jeffrey Johnson’s recent work as well. For example, in his commentary on Romans, Thomas says, “what can be known about God by men through reason, is manifest in them, i.e., is manifest to them from something in them, i.e., from an inner light (Commentary on Romans, C. 1 L. 6).” In his Commentary on John, he says, “He was the true light, which enlightens every man coming into this world (L. 5).” Thus, he did affirm the inward revelation of God. This is not in dispute (or shouldn’t be). The question is what Thomas believed that knowledge was. But I think that question equally applies to Calvin.

There is one last important point I would like to consider before closing. Waldron implies Thomas believed that “long or laborious” arguments were necessary in order to know God. This is a popular caricature. Waldron notes this while once more contrasting Thomas with Calvin. He quotes Calvin favorably:

We see that there is no need of any long or laborious argumentation to obtain and produce testimonies for illustrating and asserting the Divine Majesty; since, from the few which we have selected and cursorily mentioned, it appears that they are every where so evident and obvious, as easily to be distinguished by the eyes, and pointed out with the fingers  (Calvin, 1:5:9).

Allegedly opposed to what Calvin said, Thomas is then quoted as saying:

Now, among the inquiries that we must undertake concerning God in Himself, we must set down in the beginning that whereby His Existence is demonstrated, as the necessary foundation of the whole work. For, if we do not demonstrate that God exists, all consideration of divine things is necessarily suppressed (Aquinas, SCG, ch. 9, par. 5).

Here, Thomas is speaking of his Work, i.e. the Summas. There is another place where Thomas says, “The Apostle says: ‘The invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made’ (Rom. 1:20). But this would not be unless the existence of God could be demonstrated through the things that are made; for the first thing we must know of anything is whether it exists.” 

It would be a mistake, however, to take Thomas as saying, “The only way God is clearly seen through what He has made is through demonstration.” In point of fact, he’s arguing just the reverse. If this knowledge were not demonstrable, it would not be perceivable, and if not perceivable, then it would not be “clearly seen,” as the text teaches. Rather than God being clearly perceived only after demonstration (as many take him to mean), he means it is because these things are clearly seen that accounts for why they can be demonstrated. This becomes apparent when Thomas says, “there is nothing to prevent a man, who cannot grasp a proof, accepting, as a matter of faith, something which in itself is capable of being scientifically known and demonstrated (Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 2, Art. 2).” For Thomas, these things can be known apart from demonstration.

Conclusion

Again, I want to be very clear: This is not a personal slight toward Dr. Sam Waldron. It is not intended to show any sort of disrespect. My desire here is for truth to prevail. I fear that, in a zeal to escape a personality and even that person’s methodology, good and true things, essential things even, are being rejected, e.g. the doctrine of the Trinity with EFS, immutability, and simplicity. These are staggeringly important doctrines without which the Christian faith falls flat. For this reason, I do hope articles like this one serve to clarify rather than stir the pot.