Aquinas for Dummies

It’s October. My birthday was filled with all the pumpkin things that I love. The mornings are crisper, the leaves are changing and the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is just around the corner. There is much to celebrate. And yet a project looms before me like the bleak chill of winter and I’ve put it off long enough. I’ve been asked to write an essay. On a topic very few of you want to know anything about. But the fact is more of you should, because more of you are going to be affected by this than the nay-sayers would like to admit. While we yet bask in the glow of 500 years of Ex Tenebris Lux, the darkness of Catholicism is creeping as stealthily back into the church as a silent shadow.

It’s hard to imagine that the very doctrines sisters half my age boldly gave their lives for (you can read about 2 of them by clicking here and here) were staunchly held by the very man now being touted by main stream Protestant seminaries as The Greatest Theologian. I am speaking of Thomas Aquinas, a name most Protestants a few years ago would only have been exposed to through philosophical references by RC Sproul who reverenced him as one philosopher would another. As a philosophy major, I too, held Aquinas in high regard placing him at the center of my doctoral pursuits in Medieval Epistemology (which pursuits I promptly abandoned to pursue the far greater calling of motherhood. I literally had my first symptoms of morning sickness during the flight home from a fellowship interview at Notre Dame). But while morning sickness was taking hold of my life, a far greater sickness was taking hold of some of my Christian colleagues. That sickness was Roman Catholicism. In the years to come I saw one after another fall victim to this disease.

Lest you think I’m being over dramatic let me describe 2 scenarios of particular closeness to me. The daughter of a beloved, highly respected pastor married a young man from their homeschooling circles. He pursued a degree in Philosophy, encountered Aquinas, was drawn into Thomism, then full fledged Roman Catholicism, he and his sweet wife both converted into the RCC and brought up their children in it, until completely disillusioned he abandoned the faith all together, leaving his wife hopelessly confused with a wedge now between she and her heartbroken parents. Another brilliant young man from a strong Christian family pursud philosophy, encountered Aquinas, was drawn into Thomism, then full fledged Roman Catholicism, converted, convinced his brother to do likewise, both abandoned the gospel truths their parents raised them in and commenced raising their own families in the RCC. Similar stories abound with other classmates.

Now granted, this is the risk of any secular education and frankly of just walking out our front door into the real world. Everyone comes face to face with godless ideologies that test the genuineness of our faith. No one is immune from the influence of worldly philosophy. So why pin so much blame on a dead Medieval monk? That, my friends, is not where the danger lies. Everyone should read a little Thomas. Just as they should read a little Plato and Aristotle who so influenced Thomistic thinking. Sproul was right in his estimation of Thomas’s philosophical brilliance. And it is good and right to think hard about ideas and exercise our minds in the testing of them. It is good and right to weigh the world’s philosophies against Scripture, to be able to discern and identify where they diverge from the truth. Aquinas is of great value in that regard.

But Aquinas wasn’t just a philosopher. He was a papist through and through. There’s a reason Pope Leo XIII exhorted the Catholic scholars of the 1870’s to “restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas, and to spread it far and wide for the defense and beauty of the Catholic faith.” “Let carefully selected teachers,” he continues, “endeavor to implant the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas in the minds of students, and set forth clearly his solidity and excellence over others.”(from the 1879 Aeterni Patris) Today, Pope Leo’s dreams have been realized even beyond his wildest imaginings. For Thomistic doctrine is not only being successfully implanted into the minds of Catholic students by Catholic teachers alone, but into the minds of Protestant seminarians by Protestant seminaries as well.

When I walked away from academia in 2003, I could not have imagined that the contagion among Christian students immersed in secular philosophical studies would 20 years later be spreading like a cancer in our most respected Protestant seminaries. This means there is a high likely hood it will be impacting the local church near you. Under the guise of Classical Theism and couched in seemingly acute arguments over Divine Simplicity, Thomism appears to be far outside the range of the average lay-persons field of inquiry. They might hear their pastor throw out a quote or two from the Suma Theologica, a massive body of work affectionately referred to as the Suma, or scroll past the confusing debates on Twitter, or try and wade through the technical Latin jargon on a favorite podcast, but beyond that most of us are left relatively unscathed.

But as Reformation Day approaches, consider some of the following doctrines whose denial cost countless reformers their lives.

  1. That “the Roman Pontiff has universal jurisdiction over the entire Church of Christ,” “that to him belongs the right of deciding what pertains to faith,” and “that to be subject to the Roman Pontiff is necessary for salvation.” (Aquinas, “Contra Err Graecorum”)
  2. “That there exists a purgatory wherein souls are cleansed from sins not cleansed in the present life.” (Aquinas, “Contra Err Graecorum”)
  3. That Mary “exceeds the angels in her purity, for the Blessed Virgin was not only pure in herself, but she also obtained purity for others,” “that she was most pure with respect to guilt, because neither mortal nor venial sin could be imputed to this virgin,” “that in any peril you can obtain salvation from this glorious Virgin,” that Mary’s body did not meet with corruption because “she was assumed in the body into heaven, for we believe that after death she was raised up and borne to heaven,” and that “Christians are directed by Mary to glory.” (Aquinas, “On the Hail Mary”)

Those are just 3 of the Catholic doctrines that Aquinas defended by his own pen in a canon of personal works that spanned some 20,000 pages. There are many more I could add, just as there many more that would fall well within the bounds of Protestant orthodoxy. But the first one alone is enough to warrant sufficient concern that Thomism is undergoing a swell of popularity in Evangelical circles, and of greater concern, among those training to pastor our churches.

It is the job of the shepherd to protect the flock from the wolves without and within. The ravishing teeth of the Roman Catholic Church are bent on devouring the pure light of the gospel, robbing the flock of the gift of grace, setting before Christ’s precious bride idols of men to entice her unto whoredom. And yet there are those who would usher in these doctrines of demons under the pretense of learnedness, of tradition, and of reason. One only has to read 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 and Paul’s warnings to the church against the very Greek philosophies Aquinas builds upon to understand the arrogant futility of this kind of learning.

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,

And the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.”20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased, through the foolishness of the message preached, to save those who believe. 22 For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

1 Corinthians 1:18-24

5 thoughts on “Aquinas for Dummies

  1. Well written but it misses what is being said from the other side completely. I appreciate the honest interaction which is why I am responding here instead of Twitter. Not at all trying to be difficult, but this is the primary issue as I see it. I really think you would benefit from really trying to understand what is being said over what the people against it are saying. Perhaps start with some of Sproul’s stuff on Aquinas since you already view him favorably? It’s not just a diversion to say that we are gocused on very specific doctrines that Thomas articulated particularly clearly. He is not in any way the only recourse for Doctrine of God, nor in any way nevessary to embrace but what is nevessary to embrace is a robust Doctrine of God. Obviously I feel that Thomistic Realism is the way to go but there are plenty of other options. What’s important is the Doctrine of God, not Thomas. Critique Thomas all you want but the pushback is coming from critiquing Divine Simplicity and Classical Theism as an extension of Thomas – it shouldnt be necessary. The debate will continue going in circles if we can’t engage with our interlocutors actual arguments. Also – Sproul wasn’t simply appreciative of Aquinas as a philosopher. This is an honest suggestion – check out this interview with Sproul and see what you think. You may disagree with Sproul on this but it should at least help clarify what the concerns are – and is outside the noise of Twitter theology.

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    1. Thank you for your charitably respectful response. I think you misunderstand the nature of my post. My blog is intended for primarily (though not at all limited to) for homeschooling moms and other friends and family members that have taken an interest in our method of education. It is not a scholarly journal, nor am I qualified to engage at that kind of level. This post is meant more as a warning to laypeople like myself who will see first hand the effects of Thomism and the new Christian Platonism on their families and Bible study members that the ivory-towered scholastics will never know. I am simply identifying an enemy in the camp and do not need a background in military history, or to be trained in defense weaponry, or be well versed in the tactical maneuvering of the opposing force to do so.

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