Thomism | A critique of classical apologetics

I recently wrote a series of articles discussing Van Til on the topic of analogy, and as part of that series, in part 2, I attempted to contrast Van Til and Aquinas on the subject of analogy. This sparked the attention of some of my Reformed brothers with a love for the work of Aquinas, and they were kind enough to provide a well thought out written response to what I wrote in the comments section.

Rather than responding in the comments of the particular post, I decided to treat their response property in a separate stand-alone article. Their response, in my opinion, is more of a general defense of Thomism (classical apologetics) contrasted with Presuppositionalism than it was on the topic of analogy, hence the title of this post (that is not to say that their response was off-topic, just that it was incredibly broad).

I think their response provides a great opportunity to contrast the different schools of thought, which will hopefully serve the readers and others who want to understand Thomism and Presuppositionalism better.

Before I begin my response, I want to be quite clear that I am in no position of authority to be speaking on the topic with any sort of weight attached to it. I'm merely a Christian with a great love for the faith and apologetics, hence I take interest in reading up and engaging in these types of discussions. A helpful pre-reading (and more informed discussion) is found at the website of John Frame and Vern Poythress here. Frame provides a nice history of philosophy that will come in handy to understand some of what is written here.

With that being said, I do find that the most difficult discussions I can have in this particular field of apologetics are with the Thomists. Talking with any form of unbelief is a piece of cake for presuppositionalists. You don't need to be a genius to defend your faith using the presuppositional method, and this is the self-admitted selling point of the apologist brother Sye Ten Bruggencate. However, with the Thomists, you need to do some extensive reading to successfully engage (note I'm not implying Thomists are unbelievers, just that their system is complex and the “refutations” of presuppositionalism comes loaded with philosophical baggage). Moreover, the Thomist school of thought is itself quite divided so once you think you've successfully grasped some of the concepts, some other writer obliterates some of the confidence you thought you had.

With that being said, I'm going to try to respond as clearly and completely as possible so as to better stimulate further discussion. I'll quote the specific sections I'm providing a response to, clearly marking their text to distinguish it from mine. (Note that their response was longer than the article they were responding to and I really want to provide a complete response to what they wrote, so this might be a long read. It might be best to use the search function to find a specific section / topic that you are interested in).

The Common Objection: Van Til didn't understand Aquinas

It has been established by Richard Muller and other protestant scholars, like John Fesko, that Van Til can “by no stretch of the imagination… be viewed as a competent analyst of the thought of Aquinas” (Muller, p. 288). The point to recognize here is that Aquinas might be wrong about many things, but not because of the objections Van Til levelled against him. John Frame for example insists that the problem with Van Til’s critique on Aquinas is its “rarity of his citations of primary sources” (p. 356). The risk therefore in following in the footsteps of Van Til, as it seems you are when critiquing Aquinas, is to be dependent on someone who presents a straw-man of Aquinas’s thought on some aspects. However, we are glad to see that you engaged with some of the primary sources of Aquinas.

Sam Waldron of the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary had the same worry as above, and as a result took it upon himself to give Aquinas a re-read to determine whether the above objection has any meat to it. He wrote the following:

...Their assertion is that Cornelius Van Til substantially misunderstood and/or misrepresented Thomas Aquinas... 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.

Sam Waldron, Presuppositional Ponderings after Reading Thomas Aquinas

My point in quoting the above is not as an argument against the accusation that Van Til misunderstood Aquinas but as an indicator that we'll make little progress if we dismiss content based merely on the source used. The article I wrote on Aquinas relied heavily on Van Til, yes, but that's the entire point of the series. The article on Aquinas is part two of a three-part series that tries to explain Van Til's use of analogy.

I think the article was rather successful in trying to espouse Van Til's issue with Aquinas. Whether Van Til was successful in his critique of Aquinas is another discussion, perhaps even the one we're having now.

Aquinas and semi-autonomous reasoning and revelation

Concerning the first assumption that human reason is at least “semi-autonomous.” You explained it as follows: “Many things about the world and about God may be known without reference to revelation. For example, we (including unbelievers) can know certain things about nature and the world around us without the requirement to first be informed by divine revelation.”

It is not at all clear to what “revelation” you are referring to when talking about “divine revelation”? Are you referring to special or general revelation, or maybe both? ... How would “semi-autonomous” differ from “autonomous” for example?

Is anyone who is not consciously and/or explicitly making reference to God’s revelation, whatever that may include, automatically guilty of what you call “semi-autonomous” reason? If you are referring only to special revelation, then no one escapes your label of “semi-autonomous” human reason and everyone will be guilty of it at some point. This is especially the case with little children who are not consciously referring to special revelation when experiencing and curiously investigating the world as they use their sensory faculties... If you are referring to general revelation then it seems to me that no one is guilty of your label of “semi-autonomous” human reason since nobody escapes God’s general revelation - it is universal and renders people “without excuse.”

Everyone lives in God’s world, nobody escapes that truth whether they explicitly acknowledge it or not. Now, it might be the case that someone is not keeping track with God’s general revelation and maybe “exchanging” the truth of it, or “suppressing” it (Rom. 1). But all thought will inevitably be dependent on God’s general revelation whether it is consistent or inconsistent with it. If you are referring to both special and general revelation, the question still remains: What about curious little children chasing butterflies and forgetting about everything else around them, and people who don’t have access to God’s special revelation and still awaits an evangelist sent by God to preach the gospel to them? Are they “autonomous” or “semi-autonomous” in their reasoning since all they unavoidably have is general revelation? The only reason we are mentioning these examples is to show the difficulty with the criteria you are using to decide who is practicing “autonomous” or “semi-autonomous” human reason.

The presuppositions of the Thomistic view begin with the belief that human reason is at least semi-autonomous. Many things about the world and about God may be known without reference to revelation. For example, Aristotle, “The Philosopher,” came to a knowledge of the “Unmoved Mover” without any appeal to a revelation from God. Reason operating on sense experience can thus go far in producing a system of truth, although it cannot complete that system. Aquinas does believe that revelation is necessary to complete it because of inherent limitations of reason. Hence the existence of God can be proven but not, e.g., his triunity. Reason must be adjudged only semi-autonomous.

Gilbert W. Weaver, Jerusalem and Athens

Aquinas believes that some truths (not all truths) can be known without appeal to special revelation. What does it mean to say that some truths can be known without revelation? It means that these truths can be known by any person without any need of supernatural communication from God, hence, semi-autonomously. These truths involve the existence of God, natural law, mathematics etc. The unknown truths that require revelation relates for example to the nature of God (i.e. trinity) among other Christian truths. This is of course the nature-grace scheme of Roman Catholic thought:

The genius of the Romanist position is that it combines an interpretation of man and his world as given by the method of the Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, with an interpretation of man and his world as given by Christ in the Scriptures. In the nature-grace scheme of Rome the Aristotelian view of human autonomy and the biblical view of divine sovereignty are supposedly cooperating peacefully with one another for the welfare of man and for the glory of God.

Van Til, The Sovereignty of Grace

The interpretation of man (apart from the interpretation of God’s world given by Christ) is where the autonomy of the semi-autonomous lies. We’ll be sure to expand on how this autonomy works in Roman catholic thought later in our study.

Around us we find two sources of revelation. Natural (general) revelation (external and internal to humans) and special revelation. There is no controversy here. The charge of the response is, therefore, that no one would fit the category of semi-autonomous (or even autonomous) knower as everything around us is revelation.

Given the above, as we both would agree, another question that must be asked is whether the natural man (using unaided reason) treats and interprets natural revelation correctly.

As Christians, we both agree that the entirety of reality is revelational of the character of the Creator God. But does the unregenerate really treat natural revelation correctly? Does the unregenerate even think the natural world to be "revelational" in the first place? Later in this article we quote a source that states the following: "Thus, metaphysics for Aquinas is a study of ens commune [being in general] where this is understood as the common aspects of being without which a thing could not be; it does not presuppose the existence of divine being, and may not even be led to an affirmation of divine being."

Hence this natural “revelation” according to Aquinas may or may not reveal a divine being. It's therefore not taken as revelational of God from the start and from this we see the semi-autonomous reason rear its head. According to Aquinas, we can interpret the natural realm sufficiently without having to be “Christian” about it, and then, after some reasoning (together with pagans), determine whether it is revelational of a divine being or not.

Indeed, the Thomistic view argues that the natural man can, by the ordinary use of his reason, do justice to this "natural revelation" that surrounds him. According to this view, the natural man is already in possession of the truth with respect to natural revelation (he can, in a justified manner, run experiments, do math etc.)

On this point, Van Til writes:

But if the natural man can and does interpret natural revelation in a way that is essentially correct there is no reason why he should need supernatural aid in order to interpret Christianity truly. At most he would need the information that Christ and his Spirit have come into the world. Hearing this news he would not fail, as a rational being, to make the proper reaction to it.

Van Til, Christian Apologetics

Now as Reformed Christians, we know that the above cannot be the case. So it is at this point (at least one of the points) that Van Til charges inconsistency in Thomistic thought - it does not fully reckon with the effect of sin on the nature of man. (We'll get to a fuller discussion of this later on when we discuss participation).

So what revelation is needed for man to operate properly? Supernatural revelation:

[The] mind of man is said to be always in need of supernatural revelation... we would stress the fact that even in paradise the mind of man needed and enjoyed a supernatural revelation...
In paradise Adam knew that as a creature of God it was natural and proper that he should keep the covenant that God had made with him. In this way it appears that man’s proper self-consciousness depended, even in paradise upon his being in contact with both supernatural and natural revelation...

Van Til, Christian Apologetics

The example of Adam and Eve in the garden might provide a good example of how this functions. Adam was created in the image of God, and his position as creature was basic to his purpose. The simple command God gave man was not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The serpent, then having successfully deceived Eve, "opened" her eyes to try and reason in an autonomous manner. When she looked at the fruit, no longer with the aid of supernatural revelation, the Bible tells us that the fruit became "good for food", "pleasing to the eye" and "desirable for gaining wisdom". Had she accepted the authoritative Word of God, there is no way that something that brings death can have these three attributes that Eve saw in the fruit. Moreover, it’s not simply the outward conformity of Eve not eating the fruit that was the pre-requisite, as it is hypothetically possible that she did not eat of the fruit but for some other reason than reverence for God (e.g. so she wouldn’t become fat), but it was her moral duty to think and act in submission to God’s Word. Bahnsen pointed this out in his debate with RC Sproul.

CS Lewis has made so very clear, [though] he is not a presuppositionalist, Lewis says that that command [to not eat of the fruit] was totally arbitrary on God’s part. It wasn’t because the fruit was poisoned or anything like that. It was just to see whether she would have an obedient frame of mind and so I’d say that if she in fact didn’t eat the fruit in order to save her figure, she would have then shown that she was using a criteria which was immoral because the real issue is whether she would be submissive to God’s thoughts, and not her own.

Greg Bahnsen, Bahnsen v Sproul

Now, the critique offered of the requirement of referencing special revelation is offered as follows: Everyone will be guilty of this at some point, and little children investigating the world around cannot possibly do so (they might not even be able to read the Bible).

On the face of it this seems to be the case. We are all sinners. Before Christ saved us we were vile rebels that hated God and refused to honour Him as God, and sometimes, when we fall in sin, we refuse to do so even though we have already been justified. So yes, all of us probably were and still are guilty of this at some point, but as we grow in sanctification our tendency to sin should decrease. The very same is true of little children. No one escapes the stranglehold of sin. The child that walks outside chasing the butterfly out of curiosity will be as equally autonomous in their thinking - if they are not regenerate - as the hardened atheist on the debate stage.

Perhaps this is where we can bring in the great importance of catechism as well as the nature of babies born to believing parents. The Canons of Dort, Article 17 states that, "Since we must make judgments about God’s will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy."

This might indicate a radical distinction between the children of unbelievers and the children of believers. I myself was born into a family of Christians. There never was a time that I didn't profess faith in Jesus Christ that I can remember (although I had some years where my faith wavered later on due negligence on my side). As a child of believing parents, one of the first things taught to me was my place in God's creation. I still remember my first Bible, and how my dad and I read a simplified account of God's creation of the world. But even before that, I knew they told me about creation even though I cannot explicitly remember it. For children of unbelievers, the situation is different. They, unfortunately, will be brought up in an anti-Christian worldview. The Creator-creature distinction plays no role in their thought structure - they are raised as self-sufficient or autonomous knowers.

For someone to deny the existence of God was unthinkable to me up and till I was 16 years old. It was so basic to my existence that it was the height of absurdity for someone to think that there is no God. That's what it means to be raised in a Christian home.

We must also not forget that the knowledge of God is revealed to all men everywhere (within them and around them). The child has no more excuse than the hardened atheist for denying the existence of God. Paul teaches us in Romans 1 that no one is without excuse. As a regenerate child, the existence of God is not suppressed in his/her thought structure. Whatever he/she would investigate, his/her position as creature in the God's creation (Christian worldview) will always be logically prior to any other investigation (e.g. the butterfly flying around).

Van Til has a few short writings where he discusses the education of children.

The existing agencies, even when purged of all the non-Reformed elements, are woefully insufficient for the work that must be done. In obedience to our covenant God we shall have to bring up our children “in the fear and admonition of the Lord.”

Van Til, Grade School Education

Hence, Christian parents can teach their children to think right from the start about the world around them. And if by the grace of God their child is part of the elect, with the Holy Spirit working in their hearts, the knowledge of God they do have, because it is evident within them, can shine forth. Therefore, they can chase the butterfly knowing their proper place in the universe as a creation in the image of God. They can investigate the vast world around them with the full assurance that Spirit will guide them into all the truth (John 16:13).

Lastly, what about the people who have no access to special revelation and await the evangelist to reach them? Having never heard the Gospel there is no way for them to become regenerate. Faith comes from hearing the Gospel. Hence, their thoughts will be darkened and they too will (as in the case of Thomism) attempt to be semi-autonomous knowers, thinking they're getting along quite fine on their own. Yet, the knowledge of God is evident within them and around them, but due to their unregenerate hearts they will suppress it in unrighteousness such that their professed beliefs become foolish.

To close the second response: There are no autonomous or semi-autonomous knowers. Man is at every point reliant on a revelational act of God. Man was never created to function outside of the sphere of special revelation. If at any point man tries to be autonomous in his thinking, he destroys knowledge. Whatever unbelievers "know" is because they "steal from the Christian worldview" (their being made in the image of God with the gift of reason for example), but because they attempt to be autonomous, they are ultimately caught up in irrationality.

Van Til, commenting on Pollman's work on Calvin summarise the situation as follows:

The two forms of revelation have back of them the one incomprehensible being of God. It is he who voluntarily reveals himself both in his works and in his Word. We are therefore to live by this revelation of God alone... The first revelation of God through his works is clear and continues to be clear even after the fall. “It is revelation in the strict sense of the word—the making known of God. It is not a conclusion reached by reason.” But man holds down this revelation in unrighteousness. “In his present state man does all he can to eradicate every notion of God. He no longer knows who and how God is; his foolish heart has become dark. That is why God sends His second revelation through His Word, in which He gives a clear and true description of His first revelation and in which He, at the same time, reveals Himself as the Savior in Christ.”
It is therefore necessary to observe, says Calvin, that there is now a different order of study to be observed than there would have been if Adam had not fallen. The work of Christ as mediator is restorative of that which was originally given. Accordingly, Calvin in his Institutes deals first with the revelation of God in his works. This is the proper order. But since the entrance of sin it is necessary to begin even the study of the works of God through the Word of God. “Everyone needs the Scriptures as his leader and teacher in order to come to God the Creator.”
Are we then to conclude that there is only one means by which we may learn of God? Not at all. Believers should do justice to both forms of revelation. With the spectacles of Scripture they now read with good effect the book of nature and of history.

Van Til, The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture

For Aquinas, the person is semi-autonomous in that natural reason can determine truths from the natural order (even if the knower does not think of the nature being revelatory of anything) without prior enlightenment from Scripture. Furthermore, for Aquinas, the knowledge from Scripture provides the knower with further wisdom that is outside of the scope of natural reason - this must be taken on faith. Hence, the term “semi-autonomous knower” seems an adequate description for Aquinas.

For Van Til, the knower is at every point dependent on the revelation of God in Scripture. There is no autonomy.

Some comments on natural theology will do us well before moving on.

Natural theology

Sometimes there is some confusion between natural revelation and natural theology. I was guilty of conflating these two terms up and till quite recently.

Van Til rejected a particular kind of natural theology in clear words:

Natural theology is the result of the interpretative reaction that sinful man has given to the revelation of God to him in the created world. When we speak of revelation in nature we speak of an act of God directed manward. When we speak of natural theology we speak of a reaction on the part of man directed Godward.

Van Til, The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture

He rejected it in part because...

...when men say that we can reason from nature to nature’s God, they usually take for granted that nature as it exists today is normal, and that the human mind which contemplates it is normal. This is not true. Nature has had a veil cast over it on account of the sin of man, and the mind of man itself has been corrupted by sin.

Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology

However, Van Til does not deny all forms of natural theology:

Dividing our discussion into two main parts, we shall first set forth positively the doctrine of natural theology that is found in these standards [the confessions] and then contrast this natural theology, with another natural theology, the natural theology that has its origin in Greek thought.

Van Til, Nature and Scripture

Van Til advocates for a development of natural theology that presupposes supernatural revelation and vice versa, not a natural theology that assumes (and is built upon the analogy of being (discussed later). What does this look like practically?

The cosmos-consciousness, the self consciousness, and the God-consciousness would naturally be simultaneous... we may say that the God-consciousness would have to come in at the level of man’s sensation if it was ever to come in at all. Man would at once with the first beginning of his mental activity see the true state of affairs as to the relation of God to the universe as something that was known to him in order afterwards to ascertain whether or not God exists. He would know that God is the Creator of the universe as soon as he knew anything about the universe itself.

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology

Hence, natural theology isn’t something that we do in order to conclude that some “God” exists. It is something we as Christians, who don’t suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness, are able to do. This is also mentioned in the previous article on Aquinas - as Van Til clearly states that it is only the Christian that can safely apply the way of negation and the way of eminence when talking about God from nature.

The issue is that the natural man does not want to develop any sort of theology about the true God, and hence the resultant autonomous natural theology will only give knowledge of a false “God” that cannot be identified with the God of the Bible.

Bahnsen has a very insightful article where he lists a few issues with the natural theology of Rome that can be read here. His second point in my view hits the hardest:

[Romanist natural theology] thinks that the unbeliever can be fair and open-minded and use right reason and will affirm a portion of religious truth upon the strength of the evidence.
[On the contrary] Scripture views the unbeliever prejudiced about God, having a pre-judgment against the God of the Bible. He is closed-minded and suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.Only grace takes evidence and makes it plain to the eyes of the sinner.

Greg Bahnsen, Critique of Natural Theology

Aquinas on the gift of natural reason

Aquinas himself never thought that human beings would be able to reason “autonomously” because God in creating man had endowed the gift of natural reason to humanity... natural reason is a gift from God that He gave to humanity.

If this is the case, it would mean that either A) Aquinas is guilty of circular reasoning, or B) it is something he believes as Aquinas the theologian. Of course, as Christians, we believe that everything good is a gift from God’s hand, including our human reason so I see no reason to take issue with what Aquinas believes regarding this subject.

If Aquinas believed that we should think as creatures endowed with the gift of reason to better understand and investigate God’s created world, I (and Van Til) would have no issue. However, since Aquinas believes that the existence of God is not self-evident to us, and that we should construct complex philosophical arguments (using our reason) to establish whether God exists, there’s no way Aquinas in his system was able to believe that reason is a gift from God before establishing that God actually exists.

As we’ve seen and still will see, Aquinas the philosopher does not require the natural man to think as a creature, but joins hands with unbelievers to “discover many truths” and only at the end argue for the necessity of a Creator. Hence, to claim that Aquinas believed reason was a gift from God (as Aquinas the philosopher), we can rightfully charge him of begging the question. The issue is made clearer when we ask whether Aristotle (a pagan), who Thomists believe were “essentially correct” in his conclusions, also believed his reason to be a gift from the Creator God. This is obviously not the case.

Even in a post-fall world where reason is disordered and at many times darkened, the gift of reason still remains. This is not out of step with someone like John Calvin who explains that “For we know that men have this peculiar excellence which raises them above other animals, that they are endued with reason and intelligence, and that they carry the distinction between right and wrong engraven on their conscience. There is no man, therefore, whom some perception of the eternal light does not reach” (p. 38).

This is another point where critics of Van Til argue that he, in claiming that there is no neutral ground between believers and unbelievers, somehow destroyed our ability to converse with unbelievers. If unbelievers can’t know anything, how are we going to argue with them?

Van Til, contrary to popular belief, did not think unbelievers can’t know anything as indeed, as Aquinas said, reason is a gift from God. Unbelievers, even though they rebel, are still made in the image of God and are endowed with the gift of reason. However, this only serves to frustrate the unbelievers as they struggle to work against the knowledge of God revealed in and around him.

It is this fact, that the natural man, using his principles and working on his assumptions, must be hostile in principle at every point to the Christian philosophy of life, that was stressed in the writer’s little book, Common Grace. That all men have all things in common metaphysically and psychologically, was definitely asserted, and further, that the natural man has epistemologically nothing in common with the Christian. And this latter assertion was qualified by saying that this is so only in principle. For it is not till after the consummation of history that men are left wholly to themselves.

Van Til, The Defense of the Faith

Believers and unbelievers have nothing in common epistemologically only in principle. This is because during this stage of redemptive history we have the operation of common grace. Unbelievers can, therefore, discover many truths (e.g. mathematics, science) around them but they cannot account for why or how they know these truths. Lacking any form of justification on the grounds of their anti-Christian worldview, the unbeliever actually destroys knowledge.

So although unbelievers might seem reasonable at times, their rationality is ultimately swallowed up in irrationality because they refuse to regard their Creator as ultimate, rather working toward making themselves their own gods. This is consistent with what Calvin taught in the early stages of the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator… But shall we deem anything to be noble and praiseworthy, without tracing it to the hand of God?

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

But if the Lord has been pleased to assist us by the work and ministry of the ungodly in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar sciences, let us avail ourselves of it... Lest any one, however, should imagine a man to be very happy merely because, with reference to the elements of this world, he has been endued with great talents for the investigation of truth, we ought to add, that the whole power of intellect thus bestowed is, in the sight of God, fleeting and vain whenever it is not based on a solid foundation of truth. [Augustine] says most correctly that as the gratuitous gifts bestowed on man were withdrawn, so the natural gifts which remained were corrupted after the fall. Not that they can be polluted in themselves in so far as they proceed from God, but that they have ceased to be pure to polluted man, lest he should by their means obtain any praise.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

Here we see that due to common grace, unbelievers aren’t entirely destructive to the truth. But, since their work is not based on the solid foundation of truth, it is “fleeting and vain”. We also see Calvin encouraging us to make use of whatever unbelievers might discover, as all truth is God’s truth, even though from the point of view of the unbeliever it is fleeting and vain. Unbelievers, even though they would deny it, are still made in the image of God and are capable of understanding arguments and reasoning. We appeal to the image of God when engaging unbelievers, not to the “bag of matter that has evolved from nothing”.

Nor must we forget the effect of sin on the minds of natural man (which the respondents mention but don’t expand on). We’ve already seen that Calvin believes the knowledge of natural man, if not based on the solid foundation of truth, is fleeting and vain, but he goes even further when discussing the knowledge of God as accessible from natural reason. Any “God” that natural reason might deliver, even though there might be some resemblance to the Biblical God is immediately caught up in a myriad of falsehoods. We’ll expand on this more in a later section, for now, in Calvin’s own words:

[How] many monstrous falsehoods intermingle with those minute particles of truth scattered up and down in [the philosopher’s] writings as if by chance. In short, not one of them even made the least approach to that assurance of the divine favour, without which the mind of man must ever remain a mere chaos of confusion. To the great truths, What God is in himself, and what he is in relation to us, human reason makes not the least approach…
The Apostle declares that God has “made foolish the wisdom of this world,” (1 Cor. 1:20); and shall we attribute to it an acuteness capable of penetrating to God, and the hidden mysteries of his kingdom? Far from us be such presumption!

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

James Anderson, commenting on Van Til’s writing above, writes the following:

All of this appears in the context of a discussion of the contrast between a Roman Catholic (specifically, Thomistic) approach and a Reformed approach to epistemology and apologetics. Van Til is at pains to distinguish a understanding of common notions (and of natural theology) cast in terms of Rome’s nature/grace scheme, which fails to do justice to the doctrine of total depravity and seeks to accommodate some measure of human autonomy, from one cast in terms of the Reformed common-grace/special-grace scheme. (Carefully read the entire section, pp. 160-178 [of the Defense of the Faith], and you’ll get the picture.)

James Anderson, Reforming Apologetics (The Light of Nature)

Nothing that is written above disagrees in the section quoted from the respondents. Seeing that the respondents are Thomists, all that is being argued is that the notion that God has created men in the image of God with the gift of reason cannot be used as justification for allowing a form of semi-autonomous reasoning. I it can and should be used to call men to repent and believe in the God they know exists and are without excuse for denying. The leads us in to the next section.

Romans 1

"Fallen reason can come to proper conclusions concerning God"

This is Muller’s take on it which seems in line with Romans 1: The Reformed, like Aquinas (and, by the way, like Saint Paul) assumed that fallen human reason can come to some proper conclusions concerning God, his existence, and his will—which is what leaves people without excuse.

The respondents believe that it is the “conclusions” concerning God (e.g. his existence) that leaves people without excuse.

If it is the “conclusion” that leaves men without excuse, it is only those with the intellectual capacity to argue that can be rendered without excuse. Moreover, since the natural man is naturally hostile to the knowledge of God, he won’t ever argue in such a way as to arrive at proper conclusions about the Christian God. His mind is hostile to the truth of Christianity and is in need of a saviour.

This leaves us wondering, if it is the proper conclusions that leave someone without excuse, and the natural man will refuse to make proper conclusions regarding the Christian God by nature, who is then without excuse?

Calvin in his commentary on Romans 1 mentions the efforts of the philosophers to reason to the existence of a “God”:

Having feigned such a God as they could comprehend according to their carnal reason, they were very far from acknowledging the true God: but devised a fictitious and a new god, or rather a phantom. And what he says is, that they changed the glory of God; for as though one substituted a strange child, so they departed from the true God… But from the wickedness of such a presumption none were exempt, neither priests, nor statesmen, nor philosophers, of whom the most sound-minded, even Plato himself, sought to find out some likeness of God.

John Calvin, Commentary on Romans 1

It is for this reason that Bahnsen argued for the knowledge that Romans 1 talks about to be immediate (as well as mediate, at least for the regenerate). Immediate knowledge is gained without proof, by a direct contemplation of truth, as distinct from discursive knowledge (mediated knowledge) which is always mediated by the data of experience and by logical reasoning. Immediate knowledge may be sensuous experience or a priori, intuitive knowledge.

Having given the Bahnsen-Sproul debate a re-read before writing this response, it was quite shocking to see the similarities between the two men. It would seem, of course, that Sproul was more inconsistent in what he said than Bahnsen. At many points, what he said was almost indistinguishable from what Bahnsen said, prompting the latter to sometimes simply respond with “Amen”. Nevertheless, here is Sproul on the issue:

Classic roman catholic apologetics of course rejects the notion of immediate general revelation as being heretical, mystical subjectivism and endorsed Thomas Aquinas’ view of mediate general revelation... Immediate revelation would be a priori knowledge of God, a knowledge of God that is planted basically within the heart and soul and the mind of man. Immediate revelation is what we call the sensus divinitatus, that Calvin speaks of in the Institutes, this inner knowledge and awareness of God, direct and immediate without any kind of external means to stand between man and God.

RC Sproul, Bahnsen v Sproul

When discussing the knowledge of God in the Institutes (chapter 1), Calvin writes the following:

But though the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are bound together by a mutual tie, due arrangement requires that we treat of the former in the first place, and then descend to the latter… That there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate Calvin's Institutes John Calvin their lives to his service.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

For now it is sufficient to conclude that fallen reason cannot come to proper conclusions concerning God. The knowledge of God is not a proper autonomous conclusion reached by natural man, it is something that is implanted in the being of each and every person that leaves them truly without excuse.

It’s not the cosmological arguments, or one of the five ways that accomplishes this.

"In the things that have been made"

... you are certainly correct that the knowledge of God is “suppressed,” nobody denies that. Aquinas for example comments on verse 18 saying that Paul “sets out the knowledge they had of him, when he says: of those men who detain the truth of God, i.e., true knowledge of God, in injustice. For true knowledge of God, by its very nature, leads men to good, but it is bound, as though held captive, by a love of wickedness through which, as the Psalm says, truths have vanished from among the sons of men (Ps 11:1).” However, we are curious why you skipped the following crucial phrase in your discussion of Romans 1: “in the things that have been made.”

Aquinas mentions the following in his commentary in Romans chapter 1 as well:

[Paul] first admits that wise men among the gentiles knew the truth about God. Second, he shows that there was ungodliness and injustice among them, at so that they are inexcusable;

Aquinas, Commentary on Romans

Note that Aquinas says that the wise men among the gentiles knew the truth about God. Not all men. Moreover, the reason for their being “without excuse” was because of ungodliness and injustice among “them”, meaning the wise men. It therefore seems like Romans 1 for Aquinas is not teaching a universal moral culpability of all men everywhere because of the knowledge of God manifest in them. At this point Aquinas reasons contrary to Van Til, Bahnsen, Sproul and Calvin.

Aquinas, therefore, seems to limit the application of Romans 1 to those who have, using natural reason, discovered truths about God. If this is the case, it derails Paul’s entire argument in Romans.

Moreover, Aquinas believes the means by which they attained the truth is through the use of natural reason (or the light of reason) reflecting on the things that have been made. The knowledge of God is therefore not immediate. On the contrary, Romans 1 clearly says that knowledge of God is "manifest in them", because “God has shown it to them” and because of this they can also recognize and know that creation declares God's glory.

The Reformation Study Bible comments on this in the following way:

Here Paul stresses that humanity not only has the opportunity to know God through general revelation, but that the revelation yields real knowledge. Humanity’s sin is the individual refusal to acknowledge what is already known to be true. While knowing God, people refuse to honor Him as God or give thanks to Him. The consequence of rejecting God was that their minds and hearts grew dark. A refusal to honor God leads all intellectual pursuits to frustration.

And finally,

"Without excuse"

A couple of times through the course of your article you mention the notion that for Aquinas “there are no fundamental differences in the starting point of knowledge for either the Christian or the non-Christian. Both are equally qualified in investigating and reasoning about the external world.” We would avoid the word “qualified” since that might cause confusion. Moreover, it would seem that Romans 1 will only succeed in its claim that everyone is “without excuse” on the assumption of realism. It is precisely because natural man is endowed with natural reason and has epistemic access to reality which is intelligible on the grounds of the analogia entis, that they are culpable before God.

As we have seen, one can only be morally culpable, according to Aquinas, once one has reached the conclusion that God exists on reflection of the natural world using natural reason. This definition does not include those who might not have functioning senses, nor does it include people who never have reflected on the question of God. This limits the “without excuse” to only a certain few philosophers who have the ability to construct arguments and follow evidence in order to conclude the existence of God. But, the extent of the “without excuse” in Romans 1 is universal. It applies to all men everywhere.

The Reformation Study Bible again comments

It is not that the truth is sought but cannot be found, but rather that, confronted with the truth (which is “clearly perceived”), fallen humanity seeks to hinder and obstruct its influence, and is therefore “without excuse”. The “excuse” in view is an appeal to ignorance.

It is interesting that the respondents are connecting the discussion in Romans 1 with realism. There was a recent exchange between Dr Richard Howe of SES and Dr Jason Lisle of the Biblical Science Institute on this very topic that can be read here and here.

Long story short, the sort of realism that our respondents hold to is commonly known as classical realism. Howe describes it as follows, “As humans, we encounter the existing things of the external world by means of the senses. That world is reality”. Hence, the world of the senses is the reality that exists outside of us. The respondents, together with Howe will agree with Aquinas who stated that “All knowledge begins in the senses and is completed in the intellect.“

Coupling realism with the discussion on Romans 1 and stating that Romans 1 only makes sense on the assumption of realism is to restrict what Romans 1 teaches to mediate knowledge, which means that not all men can be without excuse. Van Til would agree that the world perceived by the senses is reality, but this is not some arbitrary belief. It is rooted in the fact that we are created in the image of God in order to understand creation around us.

Thomistic metaphysics

... after demonstrating the insufficiency of univocaiton and equivocation, Aquinas aims at the “middle ground” which is the use of analogy.

Furthermore, the popular description regarding analogia entis that it is a “sliding scale of being,” is completely misplaced. This specific depiction is in fact more akin to a form of metaphysical Monism held by thinkers like the Ancient Greek Philosopher Parmenides. However, Aquinas avidly denied this view and argued for a more qualified analogy of being: “But they were mistaken in this matter, because they used being as if it were one in intelligible structure and in nature, like the nature of any genus. But this is impossible. For being is not a genus but is predicated of different things in many ways. Therefore in Book I of the Physics it is said that the statement ‘Being is one’ is false. For being does not have one nature like one genus or one species” (Commentary on Metaphysics I.9. 138-139). Take note, especially of the following phrase: “For being is not a genus but is predicated of different things in many ways.”

This response will receive the most attention as I think it is most relevant to the article my brothers were responding to.

Genus (in the philosophical sense) refers to a class of things that have common characteristics and that can be divided into subordinate kinds.

Aquinas quite clearly denies that being is a genus in the provided quotations as being is predicated of different things in different ways. Being, for the sake of the reader, is defined is 'mere existence'. Primarily, for Aquinas, a thing cannot be unless it possesses an act of being (esse), and the thing that possesses an act of being is thereby rendered an essence/existence composite (ens). (This does not apply to God, but we'll talk on this soon).

Aquinas provides the following argument for why being cannot be a genus:

Now, that being cannot be a genus is proved by the Philosopher [read Aristotle] in the following way. If being were a genus we would have to find a difference to contract it to a species. But no difference shares in the genus in such a way that the genus is included in the notion of the difference, for thus the genus would be included twice in the definition of the species. Rather, the difference is outside what is understood in the nature of the genus. But there can be nothing that is outside that which is understood by being, if being is included in the concept of the things of which it is predicated. Thus, being cannot be contracted by any difference. Being is, therefore, not a genus.

Now this might seem complex, but it basically means the following. If 'being' were a genus, we would have to find a difference between different 'being' in order to subdivide it into different 'species'. But since 'being' applies to everything that 'is', there is nothing we can separate out from anything that 'is' that doesn't already include that it 'is'.

When we say of a thing that it is a being, or even more simply, that is is, we are not saying anything about what kind of thing it is. We are not saying anything about what it is: we are underscoring that it is. For when we speak of the being (esse) of a being (ens) we are referring to its sheer existence, not its nature or essence.

Van Til knew this, and wrote:

Thomas says that being is not a genus; it is analogical. Man’s reason cannot exhaustively understand reality. He must therefore not expect demonstration. He must not reason univocally... Thomas says that, since being is analogical, its variety of form (discontinuity) need not lead to skepticism. As we must avoid univocism so we must avoid equivocism.

Van Til, Articles of Cornelius Van Til on Joseph Butler

Hence, there aren't different 'species' of 'being', but rather, being exists analogically. If being were a genus, Aquinas would have no need for analogy as all being would be one (a genus) and he would have been able to predicate univocally. But what does Aquinas mean by saying being is analogical? "Man" and "dog" are both animals in the same way (a genus, hence animal is predicated univocally), but Socrates's being is different than mine, which is in turn different than love or the lost city of Atlantis.

Van Til puts it as follows:

In its natural theology, traditional Romanist thought seeks to avoid univocism (i.e., Parmenidean identity philosophy), and equivocism (i.e., Heraclitean flux philosophy). The result is expressed in its notion of analogy... Following Aristotle, medieval scholasticism says that Being is analogical. There is in it the element of permanence that derives from Parmenides, and there is in it the element of chance that derives from Heraclitus.

Aquinas, following Aristotle, wants to avoid univocalism (which will be the conclusion had he followed Parmenides, "all is one") and equivocal (which would have been the conclusion had he followed Heraclitus, "opposite things are identical"). If Aquinas followed Parmenides, being would be a genus. If he were to follow Heraclitus, would not be a genus, but our descriptions would lose all meaning as it will always be equivocal (e.g. My name is Arné, and if you were to say "this person is Arné" yesterday, you can say the same thing today, but it would be equivocal as I'm no longer the same person (my matter has changed, my thoughts have changed etc.))

Also note that Aquinas did write that God’s existence “is distinct from every other existence” and “God’s being which is his essence is not universal being, but being distinct from all other being: so that by his very being God is distinct from every other being.” And this makes sense of course as the analogy of being states that we cannot predicate "being" to all beings univocally. Hence, God's being (ens) is analogous to our being, and there is no being that has being in the same (univocal) sense as God.

So, what is Van Til's charge then? He writes the following:

God has one kind of being, being that is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable and full of holy attributes. The universe has another sort of being, being that has been produced and is sustained by God. In contrast with this, all non-Christian forms of metaphysics speak of being in general, being as such. They claim to be able to make intelligible assertions about the nature of being in general. Or if they do not claim to be able to do this they assume that such can be done. So, for instance, Aristotle speaks of the nature of being in general and affirms that it is analogical in character. He introduces the distinction between kinds of being, such as divine being and human being after he has made certain assertions about the nature of being in general... While claiming to hold to the Christian theory of reality Thomas Aquinas and his modern followers in effect follow Aristotle in speaking first of being in general and in introducing the distinction between divine being and created being afterwards. The consequences are fatal both for systematic theology and for apologetics. For systematic theology it means that God is not unequivocally taken to be the source of man’s being and the controlling power over his actions. Every doctrine is bound to be false if the first and basic doctrine of God is false.

Van Til, Christian Apologetics

It is quite clear that Van Til recognised that Aquinas, as Mathison in article on Van Til pointed out, claimed to hold to the Christian view of reality. The charge of Van Til is therefore one of an inconsistency. What Aquinas taught as philosopher is inconsistent with what he taught as theologian. The synthesis that he tried to offer between the thought of "The Philosopher" (Aristotle and Greek thought) and the Christian worldview simply won't fit.

The charge is that Aquinas following Aristotle says something about "being in general" before introducing the Creator-creature distinction. To understand the thrust of Van Til's critique, we need to understand what is meant by "being in general". Now this is an admittedly complex subject and I'm no way the best person to try and explain this (nor was I able to find sources that provide a comparison like this between Van Til and Aquinas, so feel free to take it with a pinch of salt).

We've already established that being (ens) is not a genus according to Aquinas, it is analogical. All things have being but not in the exact same sense. God's being is analogous to our being, which in turn is analogous to the being of Socrates, which in turn is analogous to the being of a dog. Aquinas distinguishes between different types of being (see the following link for the fuller view):

  1. Being as substance (primary)

  2. Being in the sense of the principles of substances (form and matter)

  3. Being in the sense of dispositions / accidents of substance (quality of a substance)

  4. Being in the sense if privation (a man's blindness)

  5. Being in act and being in potency

  6. Being in nature and intentional beings or beings of reason

  7. Being in essentia (essence / what it is) and being in sense of esse (existence / that it is)

All beings (including God in some sense) can be described by the preceding which are known as the aspects of being common to all being (ens commune / begin in general / common being). The only difference is that God is the only being that will be described by a particular combination. Take for example the following writings from Aquinas:

God is a substance not composed of matter. God is positively immaterial (does not depend on matter in motion for being understood, and cannot be found therein). God is pure actuality, and this is in virtue of being the first cause (ST Ia 3.1). Hence there is no potency in God. God's essence is identical to His existence. All these are descriptions of God in terms of the seven listed points above.

And it is at the point where we get to Van Til's charge that Aquinas starts by speaking of "being in general" and only thereafter introduces the Creator-creature distinction. Gaven Kerr describes the situation as follows.

According to Aquinas... As it is a purely rational science, not dependent on or presupposing the truths of revelation, metaphysics will be a study of the neutrally immaterial aspects of things, that is, a study of those modes of being that apply to all beings, whether they are material or immaterial...
Through an investigation of ens commune (being in general), an investigation into the aspects of being common to all beings, the metaphysician may indeed come to a knowledge of the causes of being and might thereby be led to the affirmation of divine being, but this is only at the end of the metaphysical inquiry, not at the beginning. Thus, metaphysics for Aquinas is a study of ens commune where this is understood as the common aspects of being without which a thing could not be; it does not presuppose the existence of divine being, and may not even be led to an affirmation of divine being (though Thomas of course offers several highly complex metaphysical arguments for the existence of divine being, but this should not be taken to be essential to the starting point of Thomistic metaphysics).

Gaven Kerr, Aquinas: Metaphysics

Hence Aquinas says that being is not the genus, but rather, ens commune is the genus (being in general).

...Consequently, it must be the office of one and the same science to consider separate substances and being-in-general (ens commune) which is the genus of which the separate substances mentioned above are the common and universal causes...

Aquinas, Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle

Van Til, therefore, was quite right in charging that Aquinas following Aristotle speaks first of being in general, and only afterwards makes the distinction between divine and created being. Especially since for Aquinas the metaphysician does not start with the affirmation of the Christian God at the outset of his inquiry. Now with this background let's look at the "scale of being".

Vernon Bourke, Thomistic philosopher of the 20th century summarises it as follows:

In some sense, all beings, from the highest to the lowest, are alike in the fact that they are. However, beings differ in their essences and as individuals. Since every finite being is the actualization of some essence, we may think of what is common in all beings as the real relation between essence and existence. These relations vary, because many different essences exist, but they are not entirely dissimilar. A dog’s existence fits a dog’s essence; a man’s existence fits a human essence. Being, then, is analogical; it represents a widely varying plurality of ratios (of essence to existence) which are in turn related to each other in some understandable proportion. God is the limit case; his essence is related to his existence by way of identity. This is being at its fullest.

Vernon J. Bourke, The Pocket Aquinas

The point is that by quoting Aquinas as saying "being is not a genus" does not refute the "scale of being". "Being in general" (the common as aspects of being without which something cannot be) is the genus, and from these common aspects we derive the scale of being.

It is at this point that we might make another nuanced point that Thomists might counter with. God is not included in Thomas' being in general as part of the subject matter of metaphysics. This is because our insights into being in general is “negatively immaterial”. God and angels are not included in the subject matter of metaphysics as both are what is called "positively immaterial". Metaphysics only applies to the aspects of being that do not depend on matter in motion (e.g. dogs, cats) but can be found in them, and is hence limited to aspects of being known to be found in material things. According to Thomas, unaided human reason cannot have direct knowledge of the positively immaterial, this is because such things (God and angels) outstrip the human intellect’s capacity to know - we can only directly know the material.

But does this mean that God is to be excluded from being in general? It doesn’t seem like it. Although our investigation into common being is only directly accessible from material substances, God enters in as the ultimate cause of the whole order of finite (material) beings, and therefore is the capstone of metaphysics itself.

There are still other objects of speculative knowledge that do not depend upon matter for their being, because they can exist without matter; (a) either they never exist in matter, as in the case of God and the angels, or (b) they exist in matter in some instances and not in others, as in the case of substance, quality, being, potency, act, one and many, and the like. The science that treats of all these is theology or divine science, which is so called because its principal object is God. By another name it is called metaphysics; that is to say, “beyond physics”, because it ought to be learned by us after physics; for we have to proceed from sensible things to those that are non-sensible. It is also called first philosophy, inasmuch as all the other sciences, receiving their principles from it, come after it.

Aquinas, Super Boethium De Trinitate

Aquinas declares ‘being in general’ (ens commune) to be the subject of metaphysics and God to be the principle of this subject (In Metaph., prooem.). Parallel to this restriction of the subject of metaphysics to created being, there is a restriction of the first object of the intellect to the ‘quiddity of material things’ or to ‘being and the true as found in material things’.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Medieval Theories of Transcendentals

Aquinas declares that the subject matter of metaphysics is being in general (substance, quality, being, potency, act etc.) and God is the principal of metaphysics. Principal (or principle, a lot of different authors seem to use a different word) meaning fundamental, primary or that which from others are derived, hence the cause of all other being.

Aquinas, in limiting the investigation of being in general to the negatively immaterial, does not mean that some of the categories of being in general cannot apply to God, as indeed we've seen some of them do apply according to Aquinas (e.g. God is pure act). Moreover, Aquinas writes:

However, even though the subject of this science [metaphysics] is being-in-general [ens commune], the whole science is said to concern (predicated of) what is separate from matter both in existence and in thought. For not only are those things called separate in existence and thought that can never exist in matter, like God and the intellectual substances, but also those that can be without matter, such as being-in-general

Aquinas, Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle

Most generally speaking, metaphysics deals with what is separate from matter both in existence and in thought. The meaning of this formula is clear from its subdivision. On the one hand, the separate refers to what is never a body. The examples are God and the angels. In short, this first sense refers to spiritual realities. On the other hand, the separate refers to what can be apart from matter as well as in matter. Examples include ens commune and substance.

John F. X. Knasas, Gilson vs. Maritain: The Start of Thomistic Metaphysics

Hence the whole of being in general is predicated of all beings (including angels and God). So although God is not included as part of the subject-matter of metaphysics, He can be deduced as the cause (principle) of all that is encompassed in metaphysics and we can predicate what we learn from being in general from the immaterial aspects of the material to the positively immaterial (like angels and God). This is one of the ways Aquinas think we can come to know God, as is evident in the following lengthy quotation which I think provides a good overview:

Now just as there are certain common principles of any particular genus extending to all the principles of that genus, so too all beings, inasmuch as they share in being, have certain principles that are the principles of all beings. And as Avicenna says, “these principles can be called common in two ways, (1) first, by predication, as when I say that form is common to all forms because it is predicated of all; (2) second, by causality, as we say that the sun, which is numerically one, is the principle of all things subject to generation.”
Now there are principles common to all beings not only in the first way (in this sense the Philosopher says that all beings have proportionately the same principles), but also in the second way, so that there are certain beings, each numerically one, which are the principles of all things. Thus the principles of accidents are reducible to the principles of substance, and the principles of perishable substances are reducible to imperishable ones, with the result that all beings are reducible to certain principles in a definite graded order.
And since the principle of the being of all things must be being in the highest degree as the Metaphysics says, these principles must be most perfect and therefore supremely in act, so that they have no potentiality whatsoever, or the least possible, because actuality is prior to, and more excellent than potentiality, as the Metaphysics says. For this reason they must be free from matter, which is in potency, and free from motion, which is actuality of that which exists in potency. Divine beings are of this sort, “because if the divine exists anywhere, it exists especially in such a nature” (that is to say, in a nature that is immaterial and immutable), as is said in the Metaphysics.
Accordingly, because these divine beings are the principles of all things and nevertheless they are complete natures in themselves, they can be studied in two ways: (1) first, insofar as they are the common principles of all things, and (2) second insofar as they are beings in their own right. But even though these first principles are most evident in themselves, our intellect regards them as the eye of an owl does the light of the sun, as the Metaphysics says. We can reach them by the light of natural reason only to the extent that their effects reveal them to us… Philosophers, then, study these divine beings only insofar as they are the principles of all things. Consequently, they are the objects of the science that investigates what is common to all beings, which has for its subject being as being. The philosophers call this divine science.

Aquinas, Super Boethium De Trinitate

All beings therefore participate in common being in different ratios. I don’t make this point lightly, and had quite a few discussions with Thomists on the topic. One of them (who I don’t wish to name) answered the question of whether God participates in common being as follows [parenthesis added]:

Common being is a term which, as far as I am concerned, refers to what is essentially a "being of reason" [immaterial aspects of being]. It is the analogical notion or concept of being which is said of anything that in any way is, and, thus, also of God.

The scale of being, therefore, seems consistent with what Aquinas taught. Each being participates in common being in different ratios, and these ratios of participation make up the scale of being. God is the limit case who is pure act and whose essence is His existence. We’ll comment on this view quite soon.

It is at this point that we revisit Mathison's response to Van Til.

Mathison's response to Van Til

Later on in your article, Keith Mathison’s response is dismissed as a failure without any demonstration why that is the case. Mathison states: “[Van Til] claims that Aquinas based his views on Aristotle’s idea of the “analogy of being.” All of this is a fundamental misreading of Aquinas. The irony of Van Til’s claim is that Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy is actually necessitated by Aquinas’ radical distinction between the Creator and the creature, the very thing that Van Til says Aquinas denies.” You respond to this statement by saying: “But is this a sufficient response from Mathison? I don't believe so. Van Til for example does not deny the essence existence distinction, so Van Til would agree with Aquinas that God's essence is identical with His existence and that God has a different essence from humans.” Your response however has no bearing upon Mathison’s statement. He explicitly answers your objection, and yet, it is dismissed as insufficient without any analysis. Furthermore, if Van Til would agree with Aquinas on this point then why is there a dispute regarding the analogia entis? As seen in Aquinas’s own views depicted above, the radical Creator/creature distinction is the foundation of the analogia entis... In short the Creator/creature distinction for Aquinas is fundamental and not merely “compatible,” especially in light of the fact that for him God is existence itself while everything else only has existence.

The response I provided to Mathison was not quoted in full above. The full response is as follows:

But is this a sufficient response from Mathison? I don't believe so. Van Til for example does not deny the essence existence distinction, so Van Til would agree with Aquinas that God's essence is identical with His existence and that God has a different essence from humans. The issue that Van Til takes is that Aquinas does not start by presupposing God whose essence is identical with His existence. The Creator-creature distinction is merely compatible with Aquinas' metaphyisc, not basic to it.

Aquinas on Analogy | Analogy Part 2

The thrust of the response lies in the fact that Aquinas does not make the Creator-creature distinction basic in his thought, and that leads to the difficulties explained in the article.

Given the outline of Aquinas' metaphysics and being in general, it is quite clear that Aquinas does not make the Creator-creature distinction basic. Sure, being is not a genus, but "being in general" is. Hence, God, for Aquinas, is the single and only being that has a certain combination of "being in general" that makes up the being that is God as described above.

The Creator-creature distinction is, therefore, not the foundation of the analogia entis (it might be implied by it), but rather, being in general is. Were the Creator-creature distinction fundamental or "basic" to it, Van Til would have had no issue.

... this notion of autonomy involves a principle of continuity that subsumes God and man under a notion of being in general. Every form of Roman Catholic thinking employs this notion of being in general. The distinction between the Creator’s being, and the creature’s being is made subordinate to the notion of being in general.

Van Til, Articles of Cornelius Van Til: Pierre Teilhard De Chardin

Divine participation

A possible way for the Thomist to get around the charge of subsuming the Creator and creature under the notion of common being is (at least in my understanding), is to appeal to a different type of analogy when we are talking about God than when we’re talking about creatures. Since in God there is no essence existence distinction, as God's essence is coterminous with His existence, and there is no potency in His being, the analogy of proper proportionality does not really apply to God. The reason for this is because the analogy of proper proportionality derives its basis from the proportion that obtains between essence and existence [Oliphint, Aquinas (Great Thinkers Series)].

There is no proportion between man in which the act of existence is limited by the essence, and between God in which there is no distinction between essence and existence? It doesn't seem to make sense. It is for this reason that Aquinas introduces the analogy of attribution (which can also be seen early on in the Summa):

[All] perfections existing in creatures divided and multiplied, pre-exist in God unitedly... Now names are thus used in two ways: either according as many things are proportionate to one, thus for example "healthy" predicated of medicine and urine in relation and in proportion to health of a body, of which the former is the sign and the latter the cause: or according as one thing is proportionate to another, thus "healthy" is said of medicine and animal, since medicine is the cause of health in the animal body. And in this way some things are said of God and creatures analogically, and not in a purely equivocal nor in a purely univocal sense. For we can name God only from creatures.

Aquinas, ST I, q13

Stated simply, since Aquinas and the philosophers using natural reason proved the existence of God - as the first cause (prime mover), pure act, whose essence is existence - all the “good” attributes can be predicated analogically to God as well as He is the cause of created being. This basis for analogy between God and man is then not found in proportionality, but in the causal relation between the beings. Humans, because they are caused by God, participate (discussed later) in God’s being.

It is with this backdrop that we can now better see another part of Van Til's criticism. The above view of analogy hinges on the natural philosopher’s ability to prove certain characteristics of God separate from divine revelation:

Since the Romanist-evangelical apologist does not make the Creator-creature distinction basic to the very first thing that he says about man or the universe, he is willing to join hands with the natural man, and together with him “discover” many “truths” about man and the universe. He will make common ground with the unbeliever as in science or in philosophy they investigate together the nature of reality as a whole. He will agree with the natural man as he speaks about “being in general,” and only afterward argue against the unbeliever for the necessity of introducing the Creator-creature distinction.

Van Til, The Basic Difference

Aquinas believed that the natural man can know lots about the universe, and will only argue with the unbeliever that there must be a Creator distinct from the rest of creation later on, after much contemplation has been performed on the nature of being in general. Thereafter, God is defined in terms of being in general as well.

For Aquinas, then, the relationship between Creator and creature is ontological as creation participates in the being of God (Participation is the way in which created beings are related to God and receptive of divine causality), and God and creation participates in common being (in the sense that the species participates in the genus). This makes man’s relationship with God ontological as opposed to the covenantal.

Now at this point we are talking about who God is. It would seem that God who is qualitatively different (wholly other) from His creation would be unknowable. Aquinas then believes God is knowable to man due to them participating in the same genus of common being, and hence have an ontological relationship. The Reformed understanding is that God is knowable to man because God has revealed Himself, making man's relation to God covenantal.

Thomas ... then stand(s) over against the Reformed understanding of how God and man relate. For the Reformed God and man relate covenantally. They both have a relationship in absolute distinction from the beginning. The way in which they relate, then, is not through some kind of ontological bond. Rather, the bond is covenantal. It is a relation established by God and guaranteed and sealed by divine fiat – not through bringing God and man in under a common ontological reality (being for Thomas).

James J. Cassidy, The Essential Van Til – Aquinas and Barth: Their Common Core

The relationship is not ontological, as Van Til clearly states:

The philosophy of the Greeks is a philosophy thought out by apostate or would-be autonomous man. It is therefore a philosophy in which apostate man makes himself believe that he is not a creature of God but is rather a being who participates in the being of God.

Van Til, Titus Flavius Clement

Man is not participant in the being of God; he is the creature of the will of God.

Van Til, Deo Serviere Vera Libertas Est: To Simplician—On Various Questions. Book 1

Making man the participant in the being of God has certain issues relating the fall and human nature (as the image of God). If man participates in the being of God (who is Being), since man is not being but merely participates in it (is granted the act of existence / esse), man also participates in non-being. Aquinas writes:

Again, the more distant a thing is from that which is a being by virtue of itself, namely, God, the nearer it is to non-being; so that the closer a thing is to God, the further is it removed from non-being. Now, things which presently exist are near to non-being through having potentiality to non-being.

Aquinas, Contra Gentiles

But if man participates in Being and non-being somewhere between Being and non-being, it means that man is inherently and unavoidably evil, even before the fall according to Aquinas.

The Reformers accepted without question the narrative of Genesis as historical when it says that Adam was created perfect and that evil came into the world because of his disobedience of God’s command not to eat of the tree of knowledge. The Reformers accepted this view of man in direct opposition to the Thomistic idea of man as a being that participates with God in a common being but which, in distinction from God, hovers near non-being, and as such is inherently and unavoidably evil.

Van Til, A Romanist Thinker on the Reformation

On this view, however, evil is never worthy of God’s wrath and condemnation. Evil is something for which man is not fully responsible. He cannot help being finite and therefore cannot help being sinful. This does make sense on the Thomistic scheme of things and their view of natural reason. There’s no radical difference between man before the fall, and man after the fall. In both cases man was in need of grace, however this grace as a metaphysical flavour to it rather than an ethical need as is the case post-fall.

Hence why Oliphint[?] noted that the medieval theologians like Aquinas had a very low view of sin.

For Calvin redemption is exclusively ethical. Sin did not lower man in the scale of being. Sin did not take away from man any of the natural powers that God had given him. Sin did not tend to destroy the metaphysical situation. To be sure, sin had physical effects. It brought disease and death into the world. But the idea that the created world would have been destroyed by sin is an abstraction. It was not God’s intention that it should. Hence it was from the beginning ultimately impossible that it should. The created world has no tendency to slip back into non-being. The fact that it needs each moment to be sustained by God does not prove that it has such a tendency. This fact only shows its actually dependent character. God intended from the beginning to uphold the universe as dependent upon himself.

Van Til, The Structure of my Thought

Nevertheless, it should be clear that the analogy of attribution and making man participant in the being of God does refute the idea of the scale of being.

A truly Reformed apologetic cannot be worked out unless one follows closely in Calvin’s wake. Men ought to see God’s being as the being who is self-sufficient and self-contained. Men ought to see themselves as creatures, as beneficiaries of their Creator’s bounties. They ought to see themselves as under the law of God. And men cannot but see themselves as such. Yet such is the folly of sin, that men hold down the truth in unrighteousness. They do this by assuming that they participate in the being of God, or that God’s being is of a piece with theirs. So their systems of philosophy, based as they are on this monistic assumption, are means by which men seek to suppress the truth about themselves. The result is folly and ruin to themselves. Either presuppose God and live, or presuppose yourself as ultimate and die. That is the alternative with which the Christian must challenge his fellow man.

Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel

Understanding Van Til’s Critique

Much has been said about Van Til’s critique above, but it would be helpful to gather a more high level view of what Van Til believed to be wrong in Aquinas’ thought.

The critique of Van Til if taken in isolation would seem that he’s denying what Aquinas is saying about who God is (i.e. that God is pure act, One in whom essence and existence is coterminous etc.) but this is not the case. Van Til is pursuing latent strands in the thought of Aquinas that “implicitly” commits Aquinas to positions he’d never explicitly hold. So, as we stated earlier, the charge of Van Til against Aquinas is that of inconsistency. It is of paramount importance to keep this in mind as we try to work through some of what Van Til has to say. Although Aquinas tried to stay true to the Christian worldview and the Creator creature distinction, his reliance on pagan thought made his objective of developing a Christian view of reality unobtainable. This is seen in Van Til’s commentary on Gilson in the “Introduction to Systematic Theology” which we will expand on more later.

Van Til praises Gilson insofar Gilson explicitly states his intention to work out a Christian philosophy. He praises Aquinas and Gilson when they refer to Exodus 3:14 (“I am who I am”) stating that “In this principle lies an inexhaustible metaphysical fecundity; all the studies that follow will be merely studies of its results. There is but one God, and this God is Being, that is the cornerstone of all Christian philosophy, and it was not Plato, it was not even Aristotle, it was Moses who put it in position.” This is what Van Til wants as well! Yet, Aquinas and Gilson in following the method and assumptions of Aristotle end up at a conception of God that is not at all like the God of the Bible.

When Aristotle said that God is pure Act he said verbally the same thing that the soundest of Christian theologians also says. Yet the Christian theologian would be referring to the internally self-complete, triune God, and Aristotle would be referring to an abstract principle of logic or being. No greater difference in content could be imagined. So also when the Stoics asserted that man is the offspring of God, the Apostle Paul does not hesitate to accept such a statement as formally true. But for the Stoics, man was of a piece with God, while for Paul man was created by God. In content there was the difference of truth and falsity between them.

Van Til, Romanism

In the above quote we see that Van Til agrees that the “discoveries” of Aristotle and Aquinas’ proofs by extension are “formally true”, but there is a difference in content that determines a difference in truth and falsity.

Writing about Aristotle’s god, Gilson writes the following:

When we speak of Aristotle’s god for the purpose of comparison with the Christian God, we refer of course to the unmoved mover, separate, pure act, thought of thought, set forth in a celebrated text of the Physics… Well, and what more could we ask? An immaterial, separate, eternal and immutable substance—is this not precisely the God of Christianity?

Étienne Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy

The issue, however, that Gilson and Van Til sees with the above is that the proof offered by Aristotle does not prove the existence of the one true God of the Bible. There could be an infinite amount of unmoved movers. Van Til then goes one step further in stating that Gilson and Aquinas, in saying that the Greeks were essentially right in the above are untrue to the words of Dt. 6:4 and Ex. 3:14.

This acts a good introduction for our next section:

Van Til and the essence existence distinction

… the question is where else would the essence/existence distinction come from if not from reality? Moreover, since Van Til also holds to this distinction, as you correctly point out, we wonder where he would get this distinction from? Here is a striking quote from Van Til for example: “We may begin with the notion of a really created mind. Such a mind will, if it reasons according to the principle of its createdness, come to the conclusion that God exists as the one in whom essence and being are coterminous” . Take note, that for Van Til, at least here, this is the “conclusion” one comes to and not the the place where one starts which is not a disagreement with Aquinas but rather an agreement. We are curious as to this quote from Van Til whether the “top-down” and “bottom-up” categories that you introduce are still that relevant to the discussion? You, however, phrase it this way: “The issue that Van Til takes is that Aquinas does not START by presupposing God whose essence is identical with His existence.” This almost seems inconsistent with Van Til himself in this instance. The question however still remains: Where does Van Til suggests one gets the essence/existence distinction from since it is not explicitly in Scripture, and even if one were to get them from Scripture, it would still have been a posteriori.

To understand the point Van Til is making when talking about “a really created mind”, we need to take a few steps back and look at the whole context in which Van Til was making the assertion. In Van Til’s Introduction to Systematic Theology, he spends some time commenting on the work of Étienne Gilson who philosophized in the tradition of Aquinas. The quote provided from Van Til above comes from this section, and it is also here where we find some interesting insights into Van Til’s critique of Thomism.

In Roman Catholic theology, Aristotle (the Greeks) is taken to be the “philosopher par excellence, as St. Thomas is the theologian. This is important to note because much of the Thomistic arguments are derived from (if not directly based on) Aristotle.

Now this has in of itself should raise a few red flags. Aristotle was a pagan, and Aristotle, being unregenerate and an unbeliever hated the One True God and fled from the knowledge of God whenever it confronted him. Hence, to say that Aristotle was basically right in his philosophy is to neglect the noetic effects of sin on the mind of man and the doctrine of total depravity per Romans 3.

Van Til writes:

God is complete self-consciousness. If he were not, he would not be One Lord, and the words of Deuteronomy “Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord” would not be strictly true (Dt 6:4).

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology

It is this God that Van Til wants to start his system of thought with. If we don’t start with this God and grant man some sort of ultimacy (semi-autonomy) we end up with a “God” that looks nothing like the God of the Bible.

Gilson, interestingly, shares a similar sentiment with Van Til on this point:

In order to know what God is, Moses turns to God Be asks His name, and straightway comes the answer ‘Ego sum qui sum, Ait: sic dices filiis israel; qui est misit me ad vos.’ (Ex 3:14) No hint of metaphysics, but God speaks, causa finita est, and Exodus lays down the principle from which henceforth the whole of Christian philosophy will be suspended. From this moment it is understood once and for all that the proper name of God is Being and that, according to the word of St. Ephrem, taken up later again by St. Bonaventura, this name denotes His very essence Now to say that the word being designates the essence of God, is to say that in God alone essence and existence are identical. That is why St. Thomas Aquinas, referring expressly to this text of Exodus, will declare that among all divine names there is one that is eminently proper to God. Namely, qui est, precisely because this qui est signifies nothing other than being itself. Non significat forman aliquam sed ipsum esse. In this principle lies an inexhaustible metaphysical fecundity; all the studies that here follow will be merely studies of its results. There is but one God, and this God is Being, that is the corner-stone of all Christian philosophy, and it was not Plato, it was not even Aristotle, it was Moses who put it in position.

Étienne Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy

Van Til praises Gilson on this point, and states that the preceding leads to high expectations of what Gilson might say next, but unfortunately to no avail as we have indeed seen that Gilson, together with Aquinas, believes that the Greeks (Aristotle) were essentially right in their arguments.

If we have already seen the truth that in God being (existence) and essence are coterminous, why would you need not to seek to interpret the rest of reality in light of this presupposition (make every thought captive and obedient to Christ)? This somewhat couples in with our previous discussion about the necessity of special revelation to the fallen man.

It is at this point that Van Til’s quote above comes into play.

[In God] there is then no distinction between absoluteness and personality. God does not merely have personality, but is absolute personality. God is the absolute originator of any being that may exist beside himself. And this in turn implies that the mind of man must, in its interpretative activity, think God’s thoughts after him. Or we may turn this about. We may begin with the notion of a really created mind. Such a mind will, if it reasons according to the principle of its createdness, come to the conclusion that God exists as the one in whom essence and being are coterminous.

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology

What is absolute-personality theism? It’s the teaching that the ultimate and most fundamental reality, the reality of which there is none greater, is both absolute in power, wisdom, justice, control, authority, etc., and also personal. God is the one who “works all things after the council of his will” (Eph. 1:11). The quote provided in the reply seems to imply that Van Til was agreeing with Aquinas that man when using proper natural reason can reach the conclusion of God in whom essence is existence, but this is not what Van Til was saying as is clear from the very next paragraph.

In contrast to this, we may take the position of the Greeks. Here too it makes little difference at which end we begin. We may begin with the vague notion of being. Then God is not presupposed as forming a cotermineity of essence and existence. In that case there may be and is existence next to God that is not created by him. Thus man’s mind is not a created mind. Thus there are ultimates next to God. And if there are ultimates next to God, God’s being and essence are not coterminous. On the other hand we may begin with the assumption of the Greeks to the effect that the mind of man is not a created mind. If it is not a created mind, its interpretation does not, in the last analysis, depend upon the mind of God. This non-created mind is then a brute fact for the divine mind, and this implies that the divine mind is not coterminous with its own being.

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology

The notion of being in general, and man being able to talk intelligibly about it without at the outset making the Creator-creature distinction basic, as advocated by Aquinas, is very much a different starting point than the notion of a really created mind / thinking God’s (who is absolute personality) thoughts after him for Van Til. A created mind already makes the Creator-creature distinction basic in its thought. A created mind is not that of the Creator. A created mind that reasons according to the principles of its createdness is not a mind that affords itself any form of ultimacy when engaging in rational discourse.

The Greeks together with Aquinas when stating that natural man can “discover many things” about nature and being in general before reaching the conclusion of some sort of divine being, does not start with the principles of a really created mind. The words of Dt 6:4 are not presupposed, hence God who forms a cotermineity of essence and existence is not presupposed. God who is absolulate personality, originator of all other being, who works His will, is not presupposed. If God is not presupposed as the originator of all other being, there might very well be existence that is not caused by Him. If man’s mind is not presupposed as a really created mind (as in the case of Aristotle) means, according to Van Til, there are ultimates next to God which means that in God essence and being cannot be coterminous. Why? Because if there are ultimates next to God, it would mean that he would need to change / learn / grow / adapt to keep up with the latest developments in these other ultimates. He would not be in full control of their actions and the determiner of all that comes to pass.

Aristotle’s god of pure act (as previously quoted from Van Til is a far cry from the true Christian conception of God’s pure act). For Aristotle, his god is pure act in that it does not change, nor is it even aware of what’s going on in the world outside of it nor can it be influenced by the outside world. This kind of “God” is compatible with his system that affords human autonomy in reasoning - but is not the Christian God.

Van Til writes:

The god of Aristotle has then begun to appear to be quite different from the God of the Christian faith. Aristotle’s god, it is admitted, has not created the world and does not know the world. If such a god is the natural outcome of the activity of reason when it is not enlightened by faith does it not seem as though faith will have to reverse the decisions of reason with respect to God?

Van Til, Christian Apologetics | The Roman Catholic View

The main issue for Aquinas therefore lies in trying to bring the “God of reason” (Aristotle’s “God”) together with the “God of faith as revealed in the Scripture”. In order to understand this, it would do us well to first talk about Aristotle’s god.

Aristotle’s god

In this section I will again quote at length a helpful explanation of how Aristotle argued for his god. But first, it might be helpful to talk about Aristotle’s view of reality. Aristotle envisioned the universe a series of concentric circles, with each outer circle's circular motion moving that of the inner circle.

With this backdrop, we can now look at Aristotle’s proof:

Aristotle develops one argument, the argument from the existence of change or motion. His statement is very complex, but its main outlines can be indicated as follows: (a) There exists an eternal circular motion, namely the movement of the sphere of the fixed stars. (b) Everything that is moved is moved by something else. (c) Therefore, there must be either an infinite series of causes or a cause of motion that is itself unmoved. An infinite series of motions is impossible. Therefore, (e) there is an unmoved cause of motion, and this is God.
This argument is not taken seriously today since most of its premises have been rejected by modern science. The claim that there exists an eternal circular motion is incompatible with the Second Law of thermodynamics. The second premise that everything that is moved is moved by something else is incompatible with Newton’s first law of motion. And if this is false then we do not have to accept premise (c) and its disjunction between an infinite series and an unmoved mover. Aristotle gives no satisfactory proof of (d) that an infinite series is impossible.
Nonetheless, this argument has had a long history. It was canonized by Aquinas as one of his “five ways” to God, and is still seriously propounded in neo-scholastic textbooks of natural theology.

Dr Stanley Sfekas, Aristotle’s Concept of God

Aquinas largely echoes Aristotle in the above when he outlines his “First Way”,

Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

Following up on his proof, Aristotle then asks the question about what we can know about this "God" that he has just proved to exist. He answers:

Since God is an unmoved mover, he must be changeless. He cannot therefore be composed like other substances of actuality and potentiality. He must accordingly be all form, all actuality, and so completely immaterial. He moves the outermost sphere of the fixed stars and this motion is transmitted to the inner spheres by ordinary mechanical processes. But God himself does not move the outer heaven mechanically. Indeed, He could not do so, since He is immaterial and not in space. Instead, He moves it in a non-physical way—by being an object of attraction or desire. God is thus efficient cause by being a final cause. His own activity, being that of a purely immaterial being, must be an activity of thought that has itself as an object. Any lesser object would be a degradation of His divinity, and a changeable object of thought would entail a change in the thinker. “Its thinking,” Aristotle concludes enigmatically, “is thinking on thinking.” (Noesis noeseos). God is absolute self-consciousness.
In determining the content of divine thought, Aristotle uses a form of argumentation known in metaphysics as the doctrine of metaphysical perfection. God is conceived as a perfect being, and Aristotle simply carries the doctrine of God’s perfection to its logical conclusion. The perfect being can only think perfect thoughts. To think anything less than perfect would be imperfect, and a contradiction. Therefore, the only content of thought that would be worthy of being thought by a perfect divinity would be itself. Therefore God contemplates himself. If he were to contemplate anything other than himself, he would be contemplating the less than perfect. This suggests that god would not be contemplating the world. Aquinas argues that God in contemplating himself has indirect knowledge of the world.

Dr Stanley Sfekas, Aristotle’s Concept of God

Returning to the question

It should be quite clear that the "God" of Aristotle is not the God of the Bible. The "God" of Aristotle is not the creator of the universe, nor is this "God" even conscious of the universe outside it.

If the God of Moses, the Creator and controller of the world, is the one to be accepted by St. Thomas the philosopher, he must first be reduced from an existent God to a pure essence, from the “He who is” to the “it that is not.”

Van Til, Christian Apologetics | The Roman Catholic View

Since there ought not be a contradiction between faith in reason (semi-autonomous reason) in Aquinas’ view, Aquinas as the theologian needs to be brought in sync with Aquinas the philosopher. Sfekas, who we quoted in the sub-section above, makes an interesting point that echoes Van Til in many ways. He writes that it is difficult to determine whether the conception of God as creator would have arisen in the minds of later thinkers in the West had it not been for the opening sentence of Genesis, which reads: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He writes that this is regarded as divinely revealed truth by Christians. Aristotle saw no need for his "God" to be the creator - his "God" is just a final step to complete his system of movements. So how then does Aquinas bring this "God" of reason together with the God he believes in through faith?

Recall from our previous article on Aquinas, that Aquinas believes that since we cannot have direct access to the essence of God, what we predicate of Him using our reason is by way of negation. We cannot say what God is, but rather what He is not (e.g. immaterial, unchanging). This is the same way Aristotle describes his "God". Hence why Van Til writes that if a unity is to be established between the God of Aquinas the theologian, He must first be reduced from the “He who is” as revealed to Moses to the “it that is not” as proven by Aristotle (or Aquinas the philosopher).

Van Til continues that the only way Aquinas can do this involves “the rejection of the existence of a God whose existence and knowledge cannot be thus related” and that “there would seem to be no escape from the conclusion that if we start with autonomous reason and contend that it deals with essences only, the being which comes to expression through these essences is a being whose very existence is that of correlativity to the human mind.

Hence, for Aquinas, the existence of God and the knowledge of God must be related. Since God is not directly perceived, what we know of God must be somehow related to His existence in order for Aquinas to bridge that gap between faith and reason.

When you start trying to derive theism without revelation (arguing in an autonomous manner), you end up reducing God at the outset to some kind of ideal, conceived in the minds of philosophers. We start from the “bottom” and work our way up toward whatever “God” might be the result. This gap between humanly conceived ideals (like any "God" or immaterial reality which we can’t directly perceive) and humanly known reality (what we can perceive) can never be bridged in the actual world. Any “God” conceived of by such philosophy can never be shown to actually exist. Known and experienced conditions reveal this "God" to be a mere correlative of human ideals. When we “begin” with autonomous human reason, and then based on our (human) perceptions, argue to something not perceived, what this “God” ends up being is based on our perceptions of reality — hence correlative with the human mind.

Van Til then writes that Kant was not wrong when he also concluded the above, and it is this what Gilson (and Aquinas) wanted to avoid. It will do us well at this point to pause on the above, and spend some time in the work of Kant.

Immanuel Kant’s contribution

The problem, thus, is not that we cannot coherently think the supersensible [things beyond human perception, like God]. It is, rather, that we can think about it in too many ways. Absent experience, reason is without a touchstone through which hypotheses can be refuted. Instead, so long as the ideas of reason are internally consistent, it can construct a multitude of theses and antitheses about the supersensible. It can, moreover, argue quite robustly in favor of each, something we see both in the Antinomies and all the more grandly in the great tomes of the metaphysicians. The problem, for Kant, is thus not about meaning, but rather it is epistemic: having no possible experience of the supersensible, we lack the theoretical resources to adjudicate between competing claims.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Kant’s Philosophy of Religion, [Parenthesis added]

Van Til’s core concession to Kant was that neither the empiricism of Locke and Hume nor the rationalism of Liebniz could sponsor truthful philosophical thought about God; however, Kant’s alternative had done no better, since autonomous man was still the predicate. Van Til’s solution was revelational epistemology, with the biblical, triune God as the predicate.

Dr Jason Murray

Kant argued that empiricism (a theory that states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience) nor rationalism (a theory regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge) can lead to any knowledge of God that is truthful. As is evident from the first quote, his reason for believing so is that the “God” that is the end of any thought process based on empiricism or rationalism becomes correlative with the human mind. [Aquinas lies on the empiricist side of Kant’s critique (Aquinas believed that nothing is in the mind that was not first in the senses)].

In Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, he attempted to bridge the gap between rationalism and empiricism, considering the relationship between knowledge gained by reason (rationalism) and knowledge gained by experience (empiricism). The theory which he developed is called “transcendental idealism” - which in essence states that empirical knowledge is real, but cannot comprehend that which transcends the cognitive faculties (i.e. God and other immaterial realities). This entails that all of the traditional proofs formulated in this manner, fail. David Hume is the philosopher who awoke Kant from his “dogmatic slumber” as Hume in consistently applying empiricism, destroyed the possibility of knowledge and with it the theistic proofs based on empiricism.

Empiricism holds that the individual man is the standard of truth and holds to the ultimacy of the sense world. The universals are purely subjective. The climax of such thought was the skepticism of Hume, for whom no knowledge was possible.

Rushdoony, Van Til and the Limits of Reason

We can briefly note that it is at this point that Bavinck (who is quoted later on by the respondents) departs from Aquinas in saying that all science must begin with a set of unproved a priori assumptions that have not been derived from experience [Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, pg. 222]. Aquinas follows Aristotle (DA 432a7–9) in holding that all the objects of our understanding “have their being in the objects of perception”. Hence Aquinas seems to fall prey to the critique of Kant. The issue with Bavinck’s view at this point according to Van Til is that he does not state on what these a priori principles rest and that he must also show that unless an a priori be given the Christian-theistic basis, it is not a true a priori.

Returning to the question

Gilson seeks desperately to escape [Kant’s / the above] conclusion [about this “God” being correlative with the human mind]… Like all Roman Catholic apologists he [Gilson] must at some time or other face this question as to how the “He who is” of Moses and the “it that is not” of Aristotle are related. He does so by arguing as follows: “Beyond a world wherein ‘to be’ is everywhere at hand, and where every nature can account for what other natures are but not for their common existence, there must be some cause whose very essence it is ‘to be.’ To posit such a being whose essence is a pure Act of existing, that is, whose essence is not to be this and that, but ‘to be,’ is also to posit the Christian God as the supreme cause of the universe.”

Van Til, Christian Apologetics | The Roman Catholic View

[Parenthesis added]

Critiquing Gilson’s solution above, Van Til writes:

But this argument does not escape the dilemma just mentioned. The logical implication of the method of Aristotle is his “god,” the “it that is not.” That has been asserted by Gilson himself and it is clearly correct. That is the only god that is accessible to reason alone. Yet Gilson constantly speaks as though “the existence of one God, the sole Creator of the world” is also accessible to reason. And this God is supposed to be accessible to reason in the way that is shown in the quotation just given. But how can a god who is not and a God who is the Creator of the world both be the logical implication of the one true method of philosophy?

Van Til, Christian Apologetics | The Roman Catholic View

Aristotle’s God is One only so long as this God is negatively and correlatively related to the cosmos. Aristotle’s God did not and does not create the world; this God is only an abstract principle.
The God of the Greeks, even the God of the greatest philosophers of the Greeks, is therefore not representative of a certain stage of legitimate speculation which needs only to be supplemented with further light by the coming of Christ. If the word covenant is to be employed in connection at all with the philosophy of the Greeks then it should be taken as the product of man as covenant-breaker. The God of the Greeks should be taken as evidence of the fact that the “noblest” product of fallen man’s thought is idolatry. In their gods the Greeks indirectly worshipped themselves.

Van Til, Christianity in Conflict

Hence, Gilson does not do enough in order to bring the “God” of Aristotle into harmony with the God of the Bible. Nor does Gilson’s answer escape the critique that Kant levied.

Holding to a concept of reason that is not itself interpreted in terms of the doctrine of God as self-contained it [Romanism] can offer no concept of authority that really stands above reason. Its authority therefore is the galling authority of one man dealing with “being in general” and guessing about it, over another man also dealing with “being in general” and guessing about it.

Van Til, Christian Apologetics | The Roman Catholic View

All this serves to show that the use of “bottom-up” for Aquinas and “top-down” for Van Til still serves as useful descriptors. The “bottom-up” approach of Aquinas that he inherited from the Greeks cannot do full justice to the concept of God as revealed from Scripture. With Bavinck, Van Til argues that the Bible doesn’t rule out any form of empiricism any more than it rules out every form of a priori reasoning. The contention of Van Til is that the a priori principles must themselves be given a Christian-theistic basis.

Now, finally, where did Van Til get the essence-existence distinction as it’s not in the Bible? It’s unclear whether Van Til himself actually held to a distinction between essence and existence. Note the respondents quote me as pointing out that Van Til also holds to the distinction, but I merely mentioned that he does not “deny the essence-existence distinction”. It might very well be the case that he did hold to it, but it’s not really important for this discussion. Van Til never denies our ability to gain insights from reality. Van Til wasn’t an anti-realist. Indeed, he held that the entirety of the natural realm is itself revelational of God, and that we as creatures have been endowed with the gift of reason to decipher all the wonderful complexities of God’s creation. There is no reason to believe that Van Til on his system could not also hold to the essence-existence distinction. He just refused to talk about anything if not in context of the Creator-creature distinction.

Biblical metaphysics

We can briefly mention what Van Til himself believed to be a Biblical metaphysic.

I am interested in defending the metaphysics that comes from Scripture. This involves: (a) the doctrine of the self-contained God or ontological trinity, (b) the plan or counsel of this God pertaining to created reality, (c) the fact of temporal creation as the origin of all the facts of the universe, (d) the fact of God’s providential control over all created reality including the supernatural, and (e) the miraculous work of the redemption of the world through Christ. This metaphysic is so simple and so simply Biblical that non-Christian philosophers would say that it is nothing but theology.

Van Til, The Defense of the Faith

For Van Til then there is no nature-grace scheme or semi-autonomy involved in man’s reason. All truth is God’s truth, and all truth, whether it is philosophy, science or theology. Van Til ends his discussion on the natural theology as per the Westminster Confession with the following Words that is appropriate to quote at this point:

[The] “old man” wants [us] to interpret nature apart from the supernatural revelation in which [we] operates. The only safeguard [we] have against this historical drag is to test [our] interpretations constantly by the principles of the written Word. And if theology succeeds in bringing forth ever more clearly the depth of the riches of the Biblical revelation of God in Scripture, the Christian philosopher or scientist will be glad to make use of this clearer and fuller interpretation in order that his own interpretation of nature may be all the fuller and clearer too, and thus more truly revelational of God. No subordination of philosophy or science to theology is intended here. The theologian is simply a specialist in the field of Biblical interpretation taken in the more restricted sense. The philosopher is directly subject to the Bible and must in the last analysis rest upon his own interpretation of the Word. But he may accept the help of those who are more constantly and more exclusively engaged in Biblical study than he himself can be.

Van Til, Nature and Scripture | The Natural Theology Of The Confession


Either presuppose God and live, or presuppose yourself as ultimate and die. That is the alternative with which the Christian must challenge his fellow man.

Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel

The above discussion is admittedly highly complex. It is complex in the sense that Thomism tries to provide a view of reality that is not at heart informed by God’s view of reality. It might be “right” in many respects, but it is the attempt of man to build a theory of reality without Special revelation.

The Thomistic offers unbelievers an excuse on the day of judgment. It does this in at least a few ways:

  • It envisions the knowledge of God for the natural man is something that is only obtainable to the wisest of philosophers that are able to work out the proofs.

  • The proofs themselves, when formulated from an autonomous viewpoint, cannot with absolute certainty prove the God of Christianity. It can at best prove (with probability_ a “God” that is correlative with the human mind.

  • It allows unbelievers a sense of self-sufficiency in the sense that they are able to interpret the world around quite alright without making the Creator-creature distinction basic.

  • The Thomistic arguments are complex, and unbelievers it seems would rejoice in this. The nature of unbelievers will propel them to reduce the clarity of God’s revelation in and around them. If an apologist comes along that agrees with them that the existence of God is not self-evident and only provable (in a probable sense) by the highly educated, they would rejoice. Van Til expressed this sentiment in An Introduction to Systematic Theology.

[It] is only Reformed theology that does full justice to the idea of revelation in all its comprehensiveness and depth of meaning. It is only if the doctrine of revelation is taken thus seriously that the knowledge of God is assured. Man may be certain that he knows God. More than that, man cannot help but know God. Man’s predicament is not, as Henry at one point with the Romanist concedes to “the fool,” that he cannot be certain whether God exists and can be known. Man’s predicament is not, as Carnell grants to modern theologians, as to whether man is immortal. It is only too surely fixed (in visceribus) in the mind of man that God does exist and that man is to meet him in judgment. The sinner’s problem from his point of view is to cast doubt upon this evidence, to make it appear as though the evidence were not clear. With the rich man who lifted up his eyes in torment, it is the effort of every man to put the blame for his failure to serve God upon the elusive character of the evidence for God’s existence. If he could rightly say that God has to be diligently searched for, that he might possibly be hidden in some remote corner of the earth, or moon or Jupiter, then he would have an excuse for his ignorance. Following Paul, the Reformed theologian, and he alone, will stress the inescapable character of the revelation of God.

Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology

Further reading: The resurrection of Thomism.

I hope this article was edifying to those who read it, and that it serves to further understanding and discussion between the two apologetic schools of thought.

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