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Reformed Thomism: Ultimate and proximate differences and starting points

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

The misinterpretation of similarities


In recent years, we've observed a notable shift within theological discourse, embodied in the emergence of "Reformed Thomism." This trend involves the attempted integration of Thomas Aquinas' teachings into the Reformed tradition, premised on the notion of retrieving Aquinas for the Protestant Reformed Churches. At its core, Reformed Thomism erroneously equates proximate similarities with ultimate similarities, risking a grave misrepresentation of the theological terrain.



The trouble with this lies in the over-emphasis of surface resemblances and their subsequent conflation with foundational commonalities. Such an approach neglects the fundamental contrasts in the theological, philosophical, and interpretive methodologies between the Reformed tradition and Aquinas's thought. It obscures our understanding of the essential distinctions and, if left unchecked, may lead to a softening of theological boundaries.


The concepts explored in this article are not limited to a single belief system. They are equally relevant to a broad array of belief structures with "Christian roots", such as contemporary cults. These groups often use similar language to express their doctrines, suggesting a surface-level similarity. However, these apparent similarities are vastly contrasted when seen in light of the profound differences that ultimately set them apart.


An essential distinction: Proximate and ultimate similarities


Cornelius Van Til offers invaluable wisdom regarding the differentiation between proximate and ultimate similarities—a crucial distinction that is often misunderstood or overlooked. He categorizes similarities into two levels. Proximate similarities are those apparent at first glance, such as superficially shared moral values, ecclesiastical practices, or even comparable views on select theological subjects.


In contrast, ultimate similarities dive far deeper, touching the foundational principles or core beliefs. These are the similarities that weave various doctrines or concepts together at a fundamental level, shaping the overall theological landscape.


Misunderstanding or conflating these two types of similarities can lead to doctrinal confusion and a dilution of theological distinctiveness, which in turn can open the church to age-old heresies that should be left dead in the grave.


The Nature-Grace dualism and the "donum superadditum"


Aquinas's philosophy is steeped in a distinct nature-grace dualism. Relying heavily on Aristotelian philosophy, he held that grace doesn't radically transform nature but rather perfects it. This stance positions human beings as capable of attaining a substantive understanding of the world through natural reason alone, with grace serving as a divine enhancement to this natural understanding.

... there is no reason why those things which may be learned from philosophical science, so far as they can be known by natural reason, may not also be taught us by another science so far as they fall within revelation...
... Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity.

Aquinas, ST, Part 1, Q1


Within this particular nature-grace framework, Aquinas saw Adam's nature as complete in itself. The "donum superadditum", or the superadded gift of original justice, was, in his view, an additional layer that bestowed an elevated level of perfection but didn't fundamentally alter Adam's nature. This perspective, though using similar terms and concepts (e.g. nature, grace, original righteousness), diverges significantly from the Reformed understanding and illustrates the risk of conflating proximate and ultimate similarities.


As a more concrete example, both Romanst and the Reformed traditions believe that the fall resulted in the loss of humanity's original righteousness. However, what the two schools mean by this are worlds apart.


The Reformed tradition maintains that the fall profoundly affected human nature, such that we became totally depraved and ethically corrupt, impacting our ability to accurately understand the world through natural reason alone.


None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.
Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.
The venom of asps is under their lips.
Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.
Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.
There is no fear of God before their eyes.

Romans 3: 10 - 18, ESV


They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.

Ephesians 4:18, ESV


In this context, special revelation becomes not a mere enhancement but a fundamental necessity, a corrective lens through which our distorted understanding is realigned with God's truth.


In Aquinas' view, the fall did not profoundly affect human nature, but it merely resulted in the loss of original righteousness (that is, the "donum superadditum"), but human nature remained largely unaffected. There is no darkened understanding or ethical rebellion. There are just humans who now lack "perfection".


The Reformed cannot follow this. In the Reformed tradition, the image of God in Adam is not an addendum to his nature. Rather, it is integral to his being. Adam's righteousness, true knowledge of God, and holiness weren't superadded features but essential characteristics of his created nature. This understanding radically transforms the nature-grace paradigm. Grace is not seen as an external addition to nature but as intrinsic to the created order (everything God created, He created good). Thus, grace doesn't merely enhance our natural understanding but is vital for our ability to truly comprehend the world and God.


Hence, while Aquinas and the Reformed tradition might employ similar language, their respective understandings of human nature, grace, and special revelation differ fundamentally. Recognizing these differences helps us to avoid erroneously elevating proximate similarities to ultimate similarities and maintain a clear distinction between the two theological perspectives.


Scripture: Not merely supplementary but fundamental


Aquinas' view of the fall means that he views Scripture as mere supplementation for the natural man - something that perfects the existing (fundamentally correct and justified) knowledge of sinners.


In ST 1, Part 1, Q1 Aquinas asks the question: "Whether, besides philosophy, any further doctrine is required?" Usually, this question is used as proof that Aquinas does believe in the necessity of Special revelation, however, we need to appreciate the underlying system in which Aquinas makes his statements.


He writes,

It is written (2 Timothy 3:16): "All Scripture, inspired of God is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice." Now Scripture, inspired of God, is no part of philosophical science, which has been built up by human reason. Therefore it is useful that besides philosophical science, there should be other knowledge, i.e. inspired of God...

Note his use of the word "useful", and not "necessary". He continues:

It was necessary for man's salvation that there should be a knowledgerevealed by God besides philosophical science built up by human reason...
...Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors...
Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation.

Aquinas, ST, Part 1, Q1


Notice Aquinas' high regard for natural human reason (whether Christian or non-Christian without divine revelation). It is fully capable of attaining knowledge relying on nothing other than itself - even though it might take it some time to reach a knowledge of God on its own. Thus, Special revelation just gives us the knowledge of God so that those who are not of a big enough intellectual stature to figure out that God exists on their own can know that as well - and so more people can be saved.


Contrasting with Aquinas, the biblical perspective presents God's special revelation as foundational and essential rather than supplementary. In Matthew 4:4, Jesus says,


Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Matthew 4:4, ESV


The implication is clear: God's word is not an accessory to human life and understanding, but rather its life-giving foundation.


Jesus' statement in Matthew 4:4 provides a clear distinction between the bread of nature and the Word of God, symbolizing grace. When Jesus says, "Man shall not live by bread alone," the bread metaphorically represents the natural world and the knowledge we obtain from it. It symbolizes the elements of our existence that can be apprehended through our senses and understood through our reason, independent of divine revelation. Yet, Jesus makes it clear that this bread—this natural understanding—is insufficient for life.


The Word of God, on the other hand, signifies grace. It represents divine, special revelation that transcends our natural understanding. It is God's communication of His character, will, and redemptive plan for humanity. As such, it is indispensable. It's not an accessory or refinement to our natural understanding, but rather, it forms the essential foundation of our knowledge and life. It's the nourishment our souls require for spiritual life and communion with God.


Aquinas' model of nature-grace dualism posits grace as a perfecting or enhancing component of nature. It's as if the bread of nature is presented as a complete meal, and the Word of God is merely the seasoning that refines or perfects it. This view dilutes the necessity and significance of God's special revelation and isn't compatible with the biblical perspective. In contrast, the Bible teaches that our natural understanding, tainted by the fall, is inadequate and that God's Word—His special revelation—is fundamentally necessary for us to attain true knowledge and life.


The notion that God's special revelation merely refines what we know through reason fails to consider the impact of the fall and the radical redemption offered through Christ. God's special revelation, therefore, is not an optional enhancement but a fundamental necessity for true knowledge and communion with God.


The priority of understanding in the acquisition of knowledge


An argument might arise, suggesting that before we can glean knowledge from Scripture, its content, which we aren't naturally endowed with, needs to infiltrate our minds. This posits a seeming paradox: If we need to be endowed with the content of Scripture to attain any knowledge (including knowledge of the content of Scripture), then we can never attain knowledge. There are a few avenues we can explore in search of a solution to this paradox:


(1) In Christian epistemology, the Holy Spirit plays a crucial role in illuminating the minds of believers, enabling them to understand the truth of God's Word. This divine illumination doesn't depend on human wisdom or intellectual capacity; it is a gracious act of God to reveal Himself and His truth to us. Psalm 119 is filled with the writer petitioning God to provide illumination to him as he contemplates God's Word:

The psalmist recognizes that even though the text of the Law is set before him, its understanding comes from God alone (v. 18, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law”).
He asserts that faithful obedience is possible only through this word-centred spiritual enlightenment (v. 34, “Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law and keep it with all my heart”).
As he learns about this word, his love for it grows (v. 97, “O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day”)—as does his hatred for everything contrary (v. 104, “From Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way”).
By understanding this word he can make sense of his circumstances (v. 105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path”).
It revives and sustains his life (v. 116, “Sustain me according to your word, that I may live; and do not let me be ashamed of my hope”).
This illumination provides what no other form of education can offer (v. 130, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple”).
It is the object of his most passionate pleas (vv. 145-46, “I cried with all my heart; answer me, O LORD! I will observe Your statutes. I cried to You; save me and I shall keep Your testimonies”).

Brad Klassen, What is the Holy Spirit's Role in Bible Study?, The Masters's Seminary


(2) Furthermore, it's important to note that all understanding is based on some form of prior knowledge, whether explicit or implicit. When a child learns to speak, they don't first understand the grammatical rules; they acquire language skills through exposure and imitation. The understanding of grammar and syntax comes later. In a similar way, understanding God's Word is a progressive journey. As we read and meditate on Scripture, our understanding deepens, and our knowledge expands.


It's intriguing that Thomists often dissent when we emphasize the indispensability of God's Word in epistemology, yet their own epistemology largely stems from Aristotle's and Aquinas's writings. How did the content of these philosophers' profound treatises on epistemology permeate their minds, given that they had no knowledge of this epistemology prior to their readings? The resolution they provide to this conundrum will likely need to align with what Van Til has termed proximate and ultimate starting points in epistemology - a concept we'll delve into shortly.

So, fundamentally, our journey towards knowledge should not begin with autonomous human reasoning, but rather with the self-revelation of God - the ultimate starting point (when we speak of God's self-revelation in Scripture and nature, we mean that everything [yes, absolutely everything] is revelational of God, controlled and determined by Him as He is the Creator, and there is none other).


The very capacity to reason and comprehend is a gift from God and operates accurately only when deployed in recognition of Him, and not in denial of Him. Neutrality equates to implicit denial. Now, undeniably, a conscientious acknowledgement (i.e. being able to verbalise or acknowledge it when asked) of God materializes later in human development (even though knowledge of God is implicit in all people even if we cannot verbalise it) — we must first acquire truths about God before we can acknowledge and express gratitude to Him. However, this chronology does not detract from the methods we've employed to attain this new understanding of our dependence on God. Studying (using proximate methods) the Bible primarily affords us insight into the condition of humanity and its relationship to God in a world post-fall. However, the ultimate starting point for knowledge (i.e., God) is not reliant on these proximate methods (e.g., our capacity to read). Our senses are validated externally before we become aware of the conditions that justify them.


It's important to clarify that this is not a logical contradiction or a circular argument:


Let's contemplate the process of learning to speak as an example. Before uttering your first word, an entire language and its complex grammatical structures exist, unbeknownst to you. As others communicate around you, you begin to grasp and mimic sounds, eventually gaining proficiency. In the process, you grow progressively aware of the language's remarkable complexities and nuances. Importantly, no individual invents their own language before learning an existing one. In a similar vein, we develop and function within a world controlled by God, becoming increasingly aware of our place within that context in numerous ways, the primary conduit being Scripture.


In essence, the ultimate starting point provides a foundational framework within which the proximate starting point can operate effectively. Our awareness of and appreciation for this foundational framework—the self-revelation of God—may evolve and deepen over time, but it does not change the fact that this foundation underpins and validates our proximate methods of acquiring knowledge. Just as a child's burgeoning language skills do not negate the pre-existing structure of the language they are learning, our developing understanding of our dependence on God does not negate the pre-existing reality of God's revelation (interchange with God's creation/control/decree/sovereignty over human affairs). As such, acknowledging God's revelation does not invalidate our methods of understanding; instead, it contextualizes them within their proper framework.


In this framework, the ultimate and proximate starting points work in tandem. Thus, even as we begin to understand Scripture with our minds, it is ultimately God who illuminates, instructs and grants wisdom. We can now see why Van Til wrote the following:


For this reason we have spoken of the Christian theistic method as the method of implication into the truth of God. It is reasoning in a spiral fashion rather than in a linear fashion. Accordingly, we have said that we can use the old terms deduction and induction if only we remember that they must be thought of as elements in this one process of implication into the truth of God.
If we begin the course of spiral reasoning at any point in the finite universe, as we must because that is the proximate starting point of all reasoning, we can call the method of implication into the truth of God a transcendental method.
That is, we must seek to determine what presuppositions are necessary to any object of knowledge in order that it may be intelligible to us. It is not as though we already know some facts and laws to begin with, irrespective of the existence of God, in order then to reason from such a beginning to further conclusions. It is certainly true that if God has any significance for any object of knowledge at all, the relation of God to that object of knowledge must be taken into consideration from the outset. It is this fact that the transcendental method seeks to recognize.

Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology p.201


Let's delve deeper into proximate and ultimate starting points as this is sometimes a great source of confusion for those seeking to understand Van Til.


Proximate and ultimate starting points in reasoning


The preceding has led us to more explicitly consider the role of proximate and ultimate starting points in epistemology.


The proximate starting point refers to our immediate consciousness of ourselves and the world around us. The ultimate starting point, however, is God Himself—our source of existence and the origin of all knowledge. To approach any fact or concept without acknowledging God as the ultimate starting point results in subjectivism and scepticism.


As Van Til rightly argues, the human mind must always be the proximate starting point in our interpretation. However, if we aim to avoid scepticism and subjectivism, God must stand behind our mental activity as the ultimate reference point. This principle upholds the crucial Creator-creature distinction and protects us from falling into an interpretive void devoid of divine grounding.


Van Til upholds that the human mind must always serve as the proximate starting point in our interpretation of facts and experiences. This reflects the reality that our consciousness is the first point of contact with the world around us. We encounter and interpret reality through our human faculties: senses, intellect, and emotions.


In this sense, our minds serve as an interpretive instrument, operating within the framework of the universe and its properties as created and sustained by God. Our thoughts and interpretations are our immediate responses to the stimuli we receive from the external world.


Yet, while the human mind serves as the proximate starting point, Van Til emphasizes that it cannot be the ultimate starting point. To place the human mind at the helm of interpretation, acting independently of God, is to drift into a sea of subjectivism and scepticism. This would imply that human understanding can stand alone and operate apart from God, leading to an overemphasis on human autonomy.


To avoid this pitfall, Van Til insists that God must stand behind our mental activity as the ultimate reference point. This perspective sees all things—including our thoughts and interpretations—as fundamentally dependent on God. Every fact we encounter, every experience we undergo, and every interpretation we make find their ultimate meaning and purpose in God. Our proximate starting point (the human mind) operates within the larger context of the ultimate starting point (God).


This understanding preserves the crucial Creator-creature distinction and highlights our ultimate dependency on God for knowledge and understanding. Our interpretations are not isolated, autonomous activities. Instead, they are part of the broader, divinely orchestrated reality wherein God imparts meaning to every aspect of our existence.


The human mind's role is not diminished in this scenario. Instead, it is correctly positioned within the larger divine framework. We are not passive recipients but active interpreters. However, our interpretations derive their validity, coherence, and value not from our autonomous reasoning but from God's ultimate interpretative authority.


This understanding underlines the necessity of integrating both divine revelation and human reason. It emphasizes that our knowledge (though immediate and proximate in our minds) always refers back to God, the ultimate reference point. This dual-aspect approach allows us to navigate the complex interplay between divine revelation and human interpretation, thus preserving a balanced, God-centered epistemology.


Aquinas objects


Aquinas would likely object to the idea that our interpretations "derive their validity, coherence, and value not from our autonomous reasoning but from God's ultimate interpretative authority." To Aquinas, as we have seen, reason has a certain degree of autonomy and can arrive at valid conclusions about the world and God independently.


Again, Aquinas would not necessarily deny that divine revelation is necessary for a complete understanding of God and His plan, but he will contest the idea that divine revelation is absolutely necessary for any true knowledge. For Aquinas, natural reason can yield genuine insights, and faith comes in to confirm, deepen, and extend what we can know through reason.


Regarding grace, Aquinas believed in the transformative power of divine grace. Still, he also maintained that grace does not destroy nature but perfects it. This notion, as discussed earlier, is distinct from the Reformed perspective, which emphasizes the radical, regenerative work of grace due to the corruption of the Fall.


Therefore, Aquinas might find Van Til's assertion that human minds must operate within a larger divine framework, relying on God's interpretative authority as false and restrictive. He might argue that human reason has its proper domain and that, within this domain, it can function adequately without constant reference to divine revelation.


Aquinas posited a synergistic relationship between faith and reason (which is in line with his synergistic view of salvation - but that is an article for another time), suggesting they could operate in harmony. He believed that both modes of understanding (faith and reason) can independently arrive at truth, though faith ultimately completes and perfects reason. He also stressed the ability of natural reason to deduce significant truths about God and morality without divine revelation. This perspective has been attractive to many who seek to reconcile scientific understanding and religious faith, as well as those who value the capacity for humans to know truths independently - and it is this perspective that has led many Churches astray in becoming more accepting of views that directly contradict Scripture (e.g. Darwinism, LGBTQ-ism)


One can see why Aquinas is an attractive authority for those who seek to engage with unbelievers: In a more secular and pluralistic context, where human autonomy and the power of reason are highly valued, Aquinas's approach might be more appealing to the unbeliever. It affirms the capabilities of human reason to discover truth independently, and it seeks to harmonize faith and reason. It essentially tells the unbelievers that they don't need to die to themselves, but rather, that they can be perfected.


The appeal of Van Til's perspective is its strong safeguard against the dangers of human pride and the elevation of human reasoning above God. It consistently upholds the supremacy and necessity of God in all things, particularly in our epistemology. Moreover, it maintains a robust Creator-creature distinction, highlighting that all understanding derives from, and must defer to God's ultimate authority.


The way forward for Reformed apologetics: How do we reach unbelievers?


In light of the discussions above, the way forward for Reformed apologetics is to move towards a more authentically Reformed perspective as exemplified in the works of theologians such as John Calvin, Herman Bavinck, and Cornelius Van Til, and further away from the works of Thoma Aquinas and the Romanist Church.


In the Reformed tradition, we have a robust theological and philosophical framework that is Christocentric, scripturally rooted, and mindful of our total dependence on God for knowledge and understanding. We must strive to emphasize the necessity of God's self-revelation as the ultimate starting point for all epistemology and honour the Creator-creature distinction in our pursuit of truth.


We should cease to see apologetics as an attempt to rationalize our faith using pagan philosophical arguments that, though they may appeal to the darkest understanding of sinners, risk diluting the transformative power of the gospel message and the necessity of divine illumination. Instead, let us see apologetics as the call to bear faithful witness to God's revelation in Scripture, and to the regenerative work of the Spirit in giving us eyes to see and hearts to understand.


Concluding Thoughts: Preserving the Integrity of the Reformed Tradition


The proximate similarities identified by Reformed Thomism, therefore, cannot be elevated to ultimate similarities. They serve as mere surface-level resemblances that mask the deeper, more fundamental contrasts that underpin our views on Scripture, nature, grace, and human nature. It is paramount for the preservation of the Reformed tradition's integrity that we discern and respect these important differences. By distinguishing between proximate and ultimate similarities, we can uphold the distinctiveness and richness of the Reformed tradition.

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Slabbert Cornu
Slabbert Cornu
Jul 14, 2023

Thanks Arne, very good article and helps us understand Aquinas better. What would then be the difference between these two statements:


Aquinas; grace perfects nature

Bavinck: grace sanctifies nature


Thanks.


Greetings

Slabbert

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Slabbert Cornu
Slabbert Cornu
Jul 14, 2023
Replying to

Yes, that is also how I understand the reformed view as also taught by Bavinck, quoting from Reformed Forum on the topic: “Grace does not repress nature, including the reason and understanding of man, but rather raises it up and renews it, and stimulates it to concentrated effort.” Bavinck was also aware of the lack of harmony amongst Protestants on this topic. He saw Calvin’s position as the most agreeable. He writes, “In the powerful mind of the French Reformer, re-creation is not a system that supplements creation, as in Catholicism, not a religious reformation that leaves creation intact, as in Luther, much less a new creation, as in Anabaptism, but a joyful tiding of the renewal of all creatures.” https://reformedforum.org/far-curse-found-nature-grace-herman-bavinck/ So in essence,…


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Guest
Jul 12, 2023

Excellent

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