Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Aquinas, Calvin, & Contemporary Protestant Thought

Arvin Vos, Aquinas, Calvin, & Contemporary Protestant Thought: A Critique of Protestant Views on the Thought of Thomas Aquinas. Christian University Press (Eerdmans), 1985. 178 pages. ISBN 0-8028-00602

Have Protestant misinterpreted Thomas Aquinas? Arvin Vos contends that by depending on secondary sources instead of a first-hand reading of Aquinas, Protestants have passed on a flawed view of Aquinas. What are some of these misinterpretations of Aquinas? They have seen Calvin and Aquinas as diametrically opposed on the nature of faith. They have argued that Aquinas' "Five Ways" on proving the existence of God are prerequisite for faith. They have argued that Aquinas has argued for a "two-story" view of knowledge where faith is added to reason.

Vos, a Reformed Protestant, in meticulous detail shows how they views are misguided and shown to be false with a first-hand reading of Aquinas. In this book, Vos believes there is a need for Protestants to re-evaluate Aquinas and commends this effort. Vos was a Professor of Philosophy at Western Kentucky when he wrote this book. His specialty was the philosophy of the Middle Ages, with special interest in Augustine and Aquinas.

Ralph Mcinerny wrote the foreword to this book. Mcinerny, a Roman Catholic,  has written many excellent books on Aquinas. Mcinerny notes, "Vos shows, I think convincingly, that some Protestant misgivings about Thomas's conception of faith, as well as his understanding of the relation between nature and grace, are not solidly based in the text and intent of the Angelic Doctor. It is easy to find passages in Thomas that emphasize the very point of doctrine most dear to the Protestant critic. This is not, of course, to say that disagreements among Christians are always misunderstandings, but it does serve to show that there is a far broader base of shared understanding than is typically assumed" (vii).

Mcinerny makes some good points in his comments. There is a danger in basing our beliefs on an author from a second-hand source. All interpreters are fallible and influenced by particular biases. It is important to get our information from the horse's mouth. Another key point is that we must show charity to texts. We must seek to understand as we want to be understood. Another good point is that until we have done this necessary work, the real work of critique cannot be done. Vos has provided an important service to Protestants by showing what Aquinas did say and what he meant by it.

I have been an Evangelical Protestant for over thirty years. I started reading Aquinas about twenty years ago. My life and thought have been enriched by reading Aquinas. I believe Protestants can receive much benefit by reading Aquinas.

Aquinas, Calvin & Contemporary Protestant Thought is divided into six chapters. Chapter one compares Calvin's thought with Aquinas on the nature of faith. Vos notes, "While Calvin and Augustine differ radically in the language they use and the methods of analysis they imply, in substance their views of the nature of faith are similar, if not identical" (20). Both Calvin and Aquinas see faith as knowledge without complete understanding. This points to the Medieval understanding that faith seeks understanding.

In chapter three Vos asks the question, was Aquinas an evidentialist or a fideist? Vos uses definitions given by Nicholas Wolterstorff to define these two terms. Wolterstorff believes Aquinas was an evidentialist based on his definition. Vos disagrees with him and sees Aquinas more of a fideist. Vos thinks Aquinas would define these two terms this way: "He would say that evidentialists are those who rely on reason, who will give assent only in cases which the intelligible object moves the intellect, and he would say that fideists are those who admit cases in which one gives assent in spite of the fact that something is not evident to the natural light of reason" (59). According to this distinction, Vos believes Aquinas is more of a fideist. He believes faith is primary. In addition, he shows how this explains Aquinas' discussion of the will and intellect in believing. Aquinas states that we are to give assent to divine revelation even when it is above reason. Aquinas sees faith and reason as compatible. Vos notes, "Aquinas does insist that reason has a role in faith. One must in some way grasp that which is believed" (60).

Other chapters analyse the "Five Ways" of proving the existence of God or the preambles and its relation to faith, God's existence "as seen and known," and nature and grace. In discussing the meaning of the preambles, Vos shows how Protestants have misinterpreted Aquinas in teaching that "Aquinas holds reason to be a precondition for faith" (67). Vos shows convincingly that Aquinas teaches no such thing. This is what Aquinas says, "The truths about God which St. Paul says we can know by our natural powers of reasoning--that God exists, for example--are not numbered among the articles of faith, but are presupposed to them. For faith presupposes natural knowledge, just as grace does nature and all perfections that which they perfect. However, there is nothing to stop a man accepting on faith some truth which he personally cannot demonstrate, even if that truth in itself is such that demonstration could make it evident" ( 70). This quote shows clearly that Aquinas is not teaching that reason is a precondition to faith.

In the last chapter Vos analyses Aquinas teaching on nature and grace. In this chapter he disputes the Protestant idea that Aquinas taught a two-story universe where faith is built upon nature. It is the idea that natural man is sufficient in himself. Grace is something added on the natural man. This idea came later from certain interpreters of Thomas Aquinas in the 17th century. Vos notes about Aquinas' teaching: "All good acts have their origin in God, for he is the author of nature as well as the gifts of nature says Aquinas. Before the Fall, man was able to do the natural good because his being was well ordered: the gift of original justice gave the soul power to control his desires. But now that nature is wounded, it can attain only part of the good connatural to it. Grace both restores the supernatural gifts and heals the wounded nature, he says, but such healing is completed only in the future life" (147). In other words, Aquinas believes man is fallen and that he requires grace to achieve his final end.

Aquinas, Calvin, & Contemporary Protestant Thought is an important work. It shows how there is much in common in Aquinas and Calvin's thought. It has shown how some Protestants have misinterpreted him by relying on second-hand sources. Vos does a good job in helping us to read Aquinas first-hand. His interpretation resonates with my own reading of Aquinas for the last twenty years. Even Flannery O' Connor said she read from Aquinas daily. I do not go many days without reading from Aquinas. He is my bread and butter.

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