11 Reasons Why We Should Not Consider Thomism to be the Theological Equivalent of the Butterfly’s Boots

Sharing Options

“However far I went I found only dingy lodging houses, small tobacconists, boardings from which posters hung in rags, windowless warehouses, goods stations without trains, and bookshops of the sort that sell The Works of Aristotle.

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, p. 1

I write as someone who is happy to include Thomists as abiding within the Christian pale, and I am more than willing to fellowship together with them as brothers and sisters in Christ. For example, R.C. Sproul was a Thomist, and I was honored to be invited on various occasions to speak at his conferences. At the same time, I believe there is some bad juju here, as in, something smells funny. And I thought that out of simple consideration for all my friends here in the School of the Prophets Cafeteria, I was under some obligation to raise the cry that there was “death in the pot” (2 Kings 4:40).

Allow me to itemize my concerns:

First, I believe that if we get the simplicity of God wrong, it will not be long before we get the simplicity of the gospel wrong. Errors about the Godhead are head water errors, and they necessarily cascade downstream. All classical theists affirm that God in His essence is immutable, impassible, and characterized by divine simplicity. This is to say that God is not the sum of His parts. He is not a composite being. But there are ways to affirm this which go too far, and which therefore threaten the simplicity of the gospel.

Second, while I believe we need to honor Aristotle as someone who was beyond brilliant, we need to remember that he was in fact a pagan. Thomas Aquinas was determined to baptize him, but there are good reasons for thinking he didn’t get him all the way under. There is therefore a vast difference between accepting what Aristotle plainly recognized about logic, for example, identifying the laws of thought, and what Aristotle embraced as his metaphysical assumptions. There is therefore a big difference between Reformed scholastics who adopted rigorous processes of reasoning from scriptural premises, and medieval scholastics, following Thomas, who applied that same method of rigorous reasoning, for example, to the Aristotelian assumption that God is immobile.

Third, the resurgence of Thomistic thinking in the Reformed world today wants to represent it as the touchstone of classical theological orthodoxy. While it is true that everyone who believes certain things about God believes them to be true, and that therefore those who differ are affirming something that is believed to be false, and there is no getting away from that, it has to be said that the Thomistic revival is being pretty aggressive about all of this. But if Thomism is the touchstone of orthodoxy, then where does that leave theologians like Luther, who hated Aristotle, Melancthon, Calvin, many of the Puritans, Dabney, Hodge, Warfield, Bavinck, Berkof, Vos, Van Til, Schaeffer, Packer, et al.)? Why can I not hang with these guys and still be a classical theist? I think we should.

Fourth, while it is good that we are looking for arguments that can defend against the assertions of open theists, and while Thomism promises to supply such arguments, it is my fear that a Thomism rigorously pursued will result in a slab of frozen-infinite-deity that open theists have confused with the God of the Bible. Open theists caricature the biblical doctrine of God, but there are corners of the Thomist world where it is not really that much of a caricature. When this happens, it is not really so much an answer to the open theists as it is a doctrine that gives open theists more plausibility than they should have.

Fifth, I am consequently concerned about the creeping assumption that classical theism is Thomism. While I believe that Thomists are classical theists, I want to maintain that a more consistent classical theism is to be found elsewhere. There is a more excellent way. It is a false choice that says we must choose between Thomism and what is called mutualism—any view of God which denies simplicity, impassibility, and immutability. Mutualism would include process theology, open theism, or panentheism. No, there is a classical theism that begins and ends with scriptural exegesis, and not with Aristotle’s idea of the divine.

Sixth, the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children, that we may keep the words of this law (Dt. 29:29). We are to study the world God made (Ps. 111:2), we are to study his Word (Ps. 119:11), we are to consider His works ad intra only when we are given plain revelation concerning it (John 17:24), and provided we take our shoes off first in deep humility (Ex. 3:5). But if we, without scriptural warrant, start disputing about how God thinks about things when He is all by Himself, we have crossed some pretty serious lines. Not only so, but we have neglected to consider how many troubles in the theological world are created by smart people. They really ought to stop it.

Seventh, the empiricism of Aristotle led him to believe that causation within God needed to operate in line with what we see in billiard ball physics. But we have no reason for taking this leap together with Thomas. And it is a leap. The temporal world does not readily map onto the eternal world. Thus it is legitimate to apply Aristotle’s laws of thought to God (otherwise a person could say that the Father is not the Father, for example), while it is not legitimate to apply time-and-space bound assumptions to the eternal one. We don’t say that God is subject to the law of gravity, for example, while we should be willing to say that the law of identity is an attribute of God.

Eighth, an a priori commitment to Thomism requires an immobile God, and this collides with many plain statements of Scripture, as well as being out of conformity with the early creeds. God is love (1 John 4:8), and love is not immobile. The Father sent the Son into the world (John 3:17; 10:36), and sending is not immobile. And when we look at Nicea, for example, one of the things we should notice would be the verbs. Within the Godhead, the Son is eternally begotten, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Now in line with an earlier point, we must confess that our understanding of begetting and proceeding in the temporal world do not map exactly onto what is happening within the Godhead. But we do know enough to say that begetting cannot be understood as something that is nothing at all like begetting, or proceeding being nothing at all like proceeding. God teaches us to call Him Father, not because He is identical to human fathers, but rather because that language communicated something important to us. And in the same way, the language with which God reveals Himself, and which the historic church has confessed, does not give us a frozen infinite iceberg ad intra.

Ninth, if it is true that “all that is in God is God,” and we are understanding it according to a strict Thomist calculus, then that means that God’s decision to create the world was necessary, and not contingent. This actually represents the heart of the trouble, and I am starting to wonder why I put it ninth. It is proper to say of God’s attributes “that all that is in God is God.” His justice is His love, which is His mercy, which is His majesty, and so on. And when all of them are considered together, we may call that His holiness. Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty. But it is not proper to apply this to all God’s acts and operations. If all that God does is God, then His creation of the world is God, and that means the creation exists necessarily. God has to be whatever He is in His essence—we do not rob Him of His free will if we say that God exists necessarily, or that it would be inconceivable to remove His omnipotence, for example. But if God’s decision to create the world the way He did is God, then that does rob God of His free will. It is better to say that God created me with ten fingers, and that He could have done otherwise.

Tenth, if ever there were such a thing as a medieval Roman Catholic, Thomas would be your man. He was a Dominican, for example, an order established with the purpose of suppressing the Waldensian proto-Protestant movement, and whose methods included savage persecution, and which Thomas defended. This kind of thing should at least give classical Protestants some pause. There are all sorts of reasons for supposing that one’s general worldview and outlook might easily seep into your theology proper. Much of the theological impetus of the Reformation consisted of a revolt against the barking of the Schoolmen, as Calvin might put it, of whom Aquinas was king daddy. And so it is that I begin to suspect something really odd is afoot when men want to “charitably” read Aquinas through a Protestant lens, and who at the same time look at me with grave concern and suspicion—I! I, who have had the Westminster Confession woven into a scarf, in the original Aramaic, which I have wrapped around my neck three times, and which I wear all the time.

Eleventh, near the end of his life, Thomas Aquinas had a mystical experience that caused him to stop writing. “Everything that I have written seems straw in comparison with what I have seen.” May it not be too much to ask that God give us the grace to see something similar (Eph. 1:18-19), and to come to a similar conclusion.