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: