Dangerous Aquinas: A Response to Dewey Roberts

by Trevor Anderson

Pastor Dewey Roberts has written a piece for The Aquila Report titled “Aquinas Is Not Safe Guide for Protestants.” Roberts writes to advise Protestants that Thomas Aquinas is not as great an aid to careful Christian thinking as is often supposed by some Reformed and evangelical authors (e.g. posts like this, or this). He lists six significant problems with Aquinas’s theological method and system, concluding: “For all these reasons and more, I would encourage people not to read Thomas Aquinas.” If one does read Thomas, though, one should keep in mind that the Common Doctor’s theology contains “poisonous, soul damning errors.”

This language, indicative of Roberts’s blunt prose throughout his piece, seems fairly strident, and unnecessarily so, given that many Reformed thinkers disagree with Roberts’s assessment in a substantive way (for instance herehereherehere, and here). Nevertheless, if its publication by the Aquila Report is any indication, Roberts articulates a sentiment about Aquinas that has purchase with some Reformed/evangelical Christians, so it’s worthwhile to examine his concerns.

Roberts does not quote or cite any passages from the Summa, so I’m not sure which passages in particular he has in mind when making his claims, but in what follows I point to some sections of Thomas’s work that tell a story that’s at odds with Roberts’s assessment.

Problem 1: Sola Scriptura

Roberts writes that “Aquinas did not believe in Sola Scriptura. The purpose Aquinas had in writing Summa Theologica was to combine the theology of the Scripture with the theological systems of the ancient Greek philosophers.”

Some conceptual problems present themselves. First, Roberts gives no definition of sola scriptura, which is really important given the significant recent literature in Reformed and evangelical circles on what that phrase means. So I’m not sure what it is that Roberts thinks Aquinas is not holding to.

Second, the “purpose Aquinas had” for the Summa was to write a handbook for theology students. In doing this he did indeed synthesize different conceptual systems, but that was not the purpose of the Summa.

Third, that Roberts describes Aquinas’s synthesis as between the theology of Scripture and “the theological systems” of the ancient Greeks indicates a profound misunderstanding of Thomas’s own project.  Thomas does not think he is synthesizing different theological systems because for Thomas the Greeks did not have theological systems; they were doing philosophy. Theology has to do exclusively with the content of divine revelation. (Roberts says that he read through the Summa in “several weeks,” which prodigiously brief period possibly indicates one cause of this misreading.)

This distinction between theology and philosophy is enormously important for Aquinas, and he makes it literally at the very beginning of the Summa, in the first words of prima pars article 1, question 1. He says that it might seem as though all the knowledge one needs is found in philosophy[1] But he says that this is wrong. There is another kind of knowledge that one needs for salvation, which comes only through divine revelation.[2]

So there is a distinction between theology and philosophy. But let us see how the two sources of these two kinds of knowledge – Scripture and the writings of philosophers – compare. In the prima pars Aquinas makes a distinction between the value of the revelation contained in Scripture and the value of philosophical insights and (possible) private revelations to members of the Church. The former, he says, is exclusively the foundation of our faith:

Hence sacred doctrine makes use also of the authority of philosophers in those questions in which they were able to know the truth by natural reason, as Paul quotes a saying of Aratus: “As some also of your own poets said: For we are also His offspring” (Acts 17:28). Nevertheless, doctrine makes use of these authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable. For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors. (ST I.1, a. 8, ad. 2)

Authority comes in three tiers: Scripture (incontrovertible proof), pronouncements of doctors of the Church (proper but only probable), and philosophy (extrinsic and probable). Roberts writes that it is “disconcerting” how often Thomas appeals to philosophers because “The ancient philosophers are in no wise on the same ground as the inspired authors of Scripture.” But that is exactly what Aquinas says: he (a) explicitly places philosophy on a lower plane than Scriptural revelation, and furthermore (b) derives the legitimacy of philosophy within theological inquiry from Scripture itself (Acts 17:28).

It would behoove us to remember that Aquinas’s ‘day job’ was as a professor of the sacred page, that he wrote commentaries on nineteen books of Scripture, and that Scripture permeates the Summa. Roberts writes that while Aquinas does start some of his investigations with a quote from Scripture, this happens “more rarely than one would like.” But that is no basis for any substantive judgment about Aquinas’s theology; it is a purely subjective valuation that many Reformed authors disagree with. Many a heresy “begins with a quote of Scripture.” That cannot be the standard that qualifies one as a Scriptural thinker.

Problem 2: Thomas the Lapsed Augustinian

Roberts writes:

Aquinas is usually characterized as an Augustinian scholar, but I think that is a misrepresentation. It is true that Augustine had once made the same mistake as Aquinas of seeking to synthesize Scripture with the teaching of the ancient philosophers, but that was during his younger days. The mature Augustine, who stood like a bulwark against the heresy of Pelagianism, had arrived at a position that Scripture was the alone special revelation of God.

This is essentially a repetition of the point about Scripture, so my responses above apply as well. However, what also fits well here is to continue the above quotation from the Summa immediately from where I left off. Thomas concludes his point about the exclusive authority of Scripture by appealing to Augustine:

…and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors. Hence Augustine says (Epis. ad Hieron. xix, 1): “Only those books of Scripture which are called canonical have I learned to hold in such honor as to believe their authors have not erred in any way in writing them. But other authors I so read as not to deem everything in their works to be true, merely on account of their having so thought and written, whatever may have been their holiness and learning.”

Roberts then says that “Because Aquinas tried to synthesize Scripture (and Augustininaism [sic]) with the teachings of the philosophers (even as Pelagius had also tried to do), it is more appropriate to classify Thomism as Semi-pelagianism.”

The sentence is incoherent and wrong. Pelagianism is not the heresy of trying to synthesize Scripture and philosophy, so the assertion is a non sequitur. Second, it is entirely incorrect that Aquinas’s soteriology was Pelagian in any way at all. One might consult Charles Raith’s excellent work here, or this book, or even breeze through a post like this, aptly titled “Thomas Aquinas is not a Semi-Pelagian.” Some passages that might be relevant are these:

Now man incurs a triple loss by sinning…viz. stain, corruption of natural good, and debt of punishment. He incurs a stain, inasmuch as he forfeits the lustre of grace through the deformity of sin. Natural good is corrupted, inasmuch as man’s nature is disordered by man’s will not being subject to God’s; and this order being overthrown, the consequence is that the whole nature of sinful man remains disordered. Lastly, there is the debt of punishment, inasmuch as by sinning man deserves everlasting damnation. (ST I.2, 109, a. 8).

[T]he order of nature can only be restored, i.e. man’s will can only be subject to God when God draws man’s will to Himself…And thus in order that man rise from sin there is required the help of grace, both as regards a habitual gift, and as regards the internal motion of God. (ST I.2, 109, a. 8)

If…we speak of a meritorious work…the worth of the work depends on the dignity of grace, whereby a man, being made a partaker of the Divine Nature, is adopted as a son of God, to whom the inheritance is due by right of adoption, according to Rom. 8:17: “If sons, heirs also.” (ST I.2, 114, a. 4).

Roberts concludes: “a thorough reading of the Summa Theologica reveals how frequently Aquinas departs from the views of Augustine.” There are no comparisons or examples at all, so I do not know what he means.

Problem 3: Thomas and Trent

Roberts writes: “Third, the theological system of the Council of Trent is virtually the same as the conclusions of Aquinas in his Summa Theologica…If you like the Council of Trent and Catholic theology, you will love Thomas Aquinas.” If Roberts is right (a hypothetical—I’m not saying he is), and if Thomas turns out to be a much better theologian than Roberts thinks, his assertion may backfire and give one a much better valuation of Trent. Since for Roberts, Thomas’s thought is the conceptual basis of Trent’s theology, his if-then could just as easily run:

If one likes Thomas, one will love Trent.
One likes Thomas.
Therefore, one will love Trent.

Then he writes: “In fact, you will be delighted with the Federal Vision and the New Perspectives on Paul, as well.” First, this is an ad hominem. Second, this argument does not have any intrinsic value; it is entirely dependent on whether Thomas is actually as bad a theologian as Roberts thinks. This is currently up for discussion.

Problem 4: Aquinas and Depravity

Roberts writes: “Fourth, Aquinas clearly departed from Augustine on the depravity of mankind. Aquinas denied that human reason is fallen.” This is also blatantly false. Aquinas first quotes Augustine: “Augustine reckons ‘two things to be punishments inflicted on the soul of the sinner, viz. ignorance and difficulty,’” then affirms: “reason is deprived of its order to the true, [which] is the wound of ignorance” (ST I.2, 85, a. 3, resp.). And again: “through sin, the reason is obscured, especially in practical matters, [and] the will hardened to evil, [so] good actions become more difficult and concupiscence more impetuous” (ST I.2, 85, a. 3, resp.).

Then Roberts quotes Francis Schaeffer, which is irrelevant in a meaningful discussion that should be about primary sources. Nor does it help that Schaeffer’s analysis on this matter is plainly wrong in light of quotations like the two above.

Problem 5: Sacraments

Roberts then states that Aquinas, along with other Schoolmen, developed a view of the sacraments that had become standard by the time of the Reformation. Therefore, we should not trust Aquinas. But this argument assumes a binary “take it all or leave it all” approach to theology that is prima facie extremely problematic. Surely there is a way to appreciate Thomistic insights while disagreeing with aspects of his sacramentology. This was certainly the case for Reformed thinkers like Peter Martyr Vermigli and Gisbertus Voetius.

Roberts says that Aquinas taught “unequivocally that the sacraments confer the new birth, justification, the grace of the Holy Spirit, sanctification, inward enlightenment, the washing away of guilt, and forgiveness of sins on every person who partakes of them.” This assertion is broad and unqualified, and one could verbally affirm the same thing about Luther’s theology, say by interpreting the sentence as meaning that, by virtue of Christ’s promise, the sacraments are guaranteed to make available God’s grace of regeneration, justification, forgiveness and so on. This is of course not to say that Aquinas and Luther’s sacramental theologies are the same: that is exactly my point. A statement, like Roberts’s, that is broad enough that it could be said of significantly differing theologies has not done the work needed of pointing to a clear error in either one.

Problem 6: Soteriology

Sixth, Roberts observes that Aquinas “is wrong on every single point of soteriology.” This is an incredibly broad assertion, and would take us far beyond the bounds of one post to investigate. I will only cite one example of what Roberts thinks is proof against Aquinas. He writes: “Too many Reformed scholars are mesmerized by Aquinas’ clear assertion of unconditional election, but they fail to realize that later in his Summa Theologica he teaches that election can be nullified by the unfaithfulness of the elect.”

Does Roberts think that election is the same as justification? Thomas states unequivocally that predestination is certain: “Predestination most certainly and infallibly takes effect” (ST I.1, 23, a.5, resp.). And: “Although it is possible for one who is predestinated considered in himself to die in mortal sin; yet it is not possible, supposed, as in fact it is supposed, that he is predestinated” (ST I.1, 23, a.5, ad. 2).

It is true for Aquinas that one’s justification can be lost. But I think a category confusion as serious as this is, for now, sufficient to cast serious doubt on Roberts’ pronouncement that Aquinas’s writings “represent a different gospel than the one taught in Scripture. Heed the warning of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 1:8. The one who preaches any other gospel than the one taught in the Scripture is to be accursed.”

I have no problem with a Reformed or evangelical Christian deciding not to consult Aquinas for theological helps. But one should not make such a decision based on the assertions of Pastor Roberts.

[1] Videtur quod non sit necessarium, praeter philosophicas disciplinas, aliam doctrinam haberi.

[2] Respondeo dicendum quod necessarium fuit ad humanam salutem, esse doctrinam quandam secundum revelationem divinam, praeter philosophicas disciplinas, quae ratione humana investigantur.

3 thoughts on “Dangerous Aquinas: A Response to Dewey Roberts

  1. “He will begin with a quote from Augustine. Yet, on other occasions he will start with a quote from one of the ancient philosophers. For one who believes in Sola Scriptura, it was very disconcerting to read such an approach to theological issues.”

    Damn, John Calvin! (oh wait, he was criticizing Aquinas…couldn’t tell the difference with this description).

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