Presuppositional Ponderings after Reading Thomas Aquinas

by | Oct 13, 2021 | Apologetics, Historical Theology

This article was originally published on the CBTS Blog on November 7, 2019. 

After Reading Aquinas!

“Everyone” knows that recently there has been quite a furor created by the claims of J. V. Fesko (Reforming Apologetics—Retrieving the Classical Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith), Keith Mathison (Christianity and Van Tillianism), Richard Muller (Aquinas Reconsidered), and other critics of Van Til. Their assertion is that Cornelius Van Til substantially misunderstood and/or misrepresented Thomas Aquinas in the construction of his presuppositional apologetics. In turn this exposes to criticism the supposed “Copernican” revolution which presuppositionalism claimed to represent in the area of Christian Apologetics.

As part of my course on Apologetics for CBTS I begin with an historical introduction to the subject. After that I delve deeply into the significance of the major, relevant, biblical passages for Christian Apologetics and for the major issues revealed by this historical introduction.  Therefore, after lecturing on the contrast between Justin Martyr and Tertullian in the Early Church period and before coming to the contrast between Warfield and Kuyper in the Modern Church, I lecture on the contrast between Aquinas and Calvin in what I call the period of the Augustinian Church.

It was the lecture on Aquinas that caused me concern.  Of course, the contrast for which I argue between Aquinas and Calvin is called into question by the advocates of Reformed Scholasticism.  But the bigger issue was the propriety of the way that I (generally following Van Til’s lead) described Aquinas’s views.

I was encouraged, however, to see that I rarely quoted Van Til or his assessment of Aquinas in this lecture.  Rather, the views of Gordon H. Clark, E. J. Carnell, and Kelly James Clark are much more frequently cited. Substantially, they give the same account of Thomas Aquinas as Van Til.  Still, I felt that I was myself too reliant on secondary sources for my description of Thomas Aquinas and not well enough read in Thomas Aquinas to defend my treatment and description of his “classical approach” to Apologetics. I determined to make sure that I had rectified this before the lecture on Aquinas.  Thus, I read the relevant sections of Thomas Aquinas for myself before giving this lecture.

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.

This conclusion should not really surprise anyone. In his recent blog posts on the subject James Anderson points out that, even if Van Til was not deeply acquainted with Aquinas’ writings himself, he was at least using the exposition of Aquinas available from the premier Aquinas scholar of the 20th century.  I refer to Etienne Gilson and his The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Here is what Anderson says: “I think it’s also fair to criticize Van Til for relying heavily on secondary sources and not engaging more directly with Aquinas’s works. Even so, Van Til engages frequently with Etienne Gilson, who was one of the leading authorities on Aquinas during Van Til’s career, so it’s not as though his secondary sources were dubious ones! If Van Til was interacting with Aquinas through the lens of Gilson and other contemporary scholars, then he was interacting with the interpretation of Aquinas that was dominant in his day.”[1] As I read Gilson, it was clear to me that his treatment was a closely accurate portrayal of Thomas Aquinas, his Christian philosophy, and his Apologetics.

In the space that follows I want to respond to the criticisms of presuppositionalism based on the fascination with Aquinas among some contemporary Reformed scholars.  I will point out several misguided and unhelpful directions that are being taken in the current discussion of Aquinas and Christian Apologetics.


Why are we privileging Aquinas over Augustine?

One of the first things that became very clear to me as I read Aquinas was that with respect to the whole issue of apologetics and the proofs for the existence of God, he does not agree with Augustine, Anselm, and many other Christian theologians who preceded him.  They asserted (what Thomas denies) that the existence of God is self-evident or naturally implanted in man.  This is evident in his whole approach to the subject.  Here is his description of the arguments of those who say that the existence of God is self-evident in Summa Theologica Question 2, Article 2.  (Note that Aquinas is presenting views he rejects!)

 Objection 2: Further, those things are said to be self-evident which are known as soon as the terms are known, which the Philosopher (1 Poster. iii) says is true of the first principles of demonstration. Thus, when the nature of a whole and of a part is known, it is at once recognized that every whole is greater than its part. But as soon as the signification of the word “God” is understood, it is at once seen that God exists. For by this word is signified that thing than which nothing greater can be conceived. But that which exists actually and mentally is greater than that which exists only mentally. Therefore, since as soon as the word “God” is understood it exists mentally, it also follows that it exists actually. Therefore the proposition “God exists” is self-evident.

Objection 3: Further, the existence of truth is self-evident. For whoever denies the existence of truth grants that truth does not exist: and, if truth does not exist, then the proposition “Truth does not exist” is true: and if there is anything true, there must be truth. But God is truth itself: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6) Therefore “God exists” is self-evident.”[2]

These are descriptions of two well-known arguments for the self-evident-ness of the existence of God.  The first is Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God.  The second is Augustine’s argument from the existence of truth. He does not mention here that these arguments were brought forward not only by Anselm, but by Augustine as well.  This, however, was clear to anyone acquainted with Augustine.  Augustine’s argument from truth is plain to see in Book 2 of his treatise on The Free Choice of the Will.

Aquinas denies that the existence of God is self-evident in both his Summa Theologica and in his Summa Contra Gentiles and rejects the above arguments. The five proofs are built, then, upon the denial of any innate knowledge of God.  Says Gordon H. Clark:

Thomas faced two other contrasting views.  One is that the existence of God is self-evident and neither needs nor is susceptible of proof from prior first principles.  Those who hold this view argue that God has implanted in all men an elemental knowledge of himself.  The idea of God is innate.  On this showing any argument or so-called proof could be nothing more than a clarification of already present ideas; and such in effect was the nature of Augustine’s, Anselm’s and Bonaventura’s attempts.  Now, in one sense Thomas is willing to admit that God’s existence is self-evident: it is self-evident in itself, it is self-evident to God; but it is not self-evident to us.  God has not implanted ideas in the human mind, and all knowledge must be based on sensory experience.”   [3]

For the substantiation of Clark’s assertions, cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Volume 1, Question 2, Article 1; Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 1, Chapters 10-12.  In these places he mentions other Christian theologians with whom he is taking issue. Included among them are the ones he calls the Damascene and Bonaventura.

 All of this is significant because it means that in favoring the classical apologetics of Aquinas, contemporary Reformed theologians are selecting one from among several historically “scholastic” positions.  They are really crediting Aquinas over Augustine.  They are also privileging Christian Aristotelianism over Christian Platonism.  It is well-known that the idea of the self-evident-ness of the existence of God appealed to Augustine, Anselm, and others because of their preference for a form of Christian Platonism which emphasized the importance of innate ideas over the Christian Aristotelianism of Aquinas which favored the importance of sensory or empirical evidence.

 My point is not to argue for Christian Platonism—any more than I am arguing for Christian Aristotelianism. It is only to say that in their rush to identify Reformed Scholasticism with Aquinas, contemporary Reformed theologians may have forgotten that there was a different and viable option available to our Reformed fathers that did not involve the adoption of Aquinas’s view of natural theology.  That alternative was none other than the view of the one who was recognized by Calvin and others as the most important predecessor of the Reformation, Augustine himself. Scholastics such as Anselm and Bonaventura did not reject Augustine’s views in the way Aquinas did. They remained more faithful to the Augustinian tradition with regard to the self-evident nature of the knowledge of God.

 There is certainly clear evidence (from the predominant number of times he quotes him in the Institutes) that Calvin privileged Augustine.  Calvin frequently cites Augustine by name and generally positively. I think the number is 300 plus times in the Institutes. Having searched I can find only three places where he cites by name Thomas Aquinas.  The references are not very positive, but usually rather equivocal.  In spite of this, we are supposed to think that Calvin adopted Aquinas’s view of apologetics and the theistic proofs rather than Augustine’s.  This is a really suspect way to reason.

 Why are we privileging Aquinas over Augustine?  Furthermore, why must we privilege either Christian Aristotelianism or Christian Platonism? Of course, I am not arguing that we return to the Christian Platonism of Augustine.  I am saying, however, that there were certainly historical-theological alternatives available to the Reformed Scholastics that did not involve a return to “the classical apologetics” of Thomas Aquinas.


Aquinas’ Inadequate Views of Noetic Depravity

Van Til and presuppositionalism object to Aquinas’s approach to natural theology and apologetics. One major reason given for this is that Thomism exhibits an over-confidence in fallen human reason. Does Thomas over-rate the ability of human reason and under-rate the effects of noetic depravity (the depravity of fallen man’s mind) in his natural theology?  I think he does, but this requires a little explanation, if we are to be entirely fair to Thomas.

The picture that many have of Thomas Aquinas as a typical, semi-Pelagian Roman Catholic is certainly not correct. At key points on the doctrine of grace he follows Augustine carefully and deserves in those respects to be regarded as a strict Augustinian.  This is, of course, a huge problem for modern Roman Catholicism because of its clearly semi-Pelagian tendencies.

Aquinas, in spite of modern Thomists’ misconceptions, was thoroughly Augustinian in his view of predestination.  In his treatment of predestination Aquinas answers a number of questions in the way that only Augustine and his strict followers would answer. [4] Here is a brief summary.

  • “Whether Men Are Predestined by God?” Yes!
  • “Whether Predestination Places Anything in the Predestined?” No! (Men are passive in this matter.)
  • “Whether God Reprobates Any Men?” Yes!
  • “Whether the Predestined Are Chosen by God?” Yes!
  • “Whether the Foreknowledge of Merits Is the Cause of Predestination?” No!
  • “Whether Predestination Is Certain?” Yes!
  • “Whether the Number of the Predestined Is Certain?” Yes!
  • “Whether Predestination Can Be Furthered by the Prayers of the Saints?” No, in that predestination is first determined regardless of the prayers of the saints. Yes, in that the effect of predestination—salvation—can be furthered by the prayers of the saints as a means of grace.

This last question and answer exactly parallels Augustine’s argument in his book entitled, Of Rebuke and Grace (as do all the others). Thomas echoes the anti-Pelagian teaching of Augustine.

Similarly, and not surprisingly, Thomas also agrees with Augustine about what is now known as “irresistible grace.”  Once again through his typical and very analytical treatment Aquinas follows the course laid out by Augustine. [5] But the pinnacle is reached when Aquinas teaches what amounts to effectual calling or irresistible grace: “… since God’s intention cannot fail, according to the saying of Augustine in his book on the Predestination of the Saints … that by God’s good gifts whoever is liberated is most certainly liberated.  Hence if God intends, while moving, that the one whose heart He moves should attain to grace, he will infallibly attain to it …”[6]

With such evidence in front of us, we may rather expect that Aquinas will follow out what we know as the Calvinistic scheme by teaching the perseverance and preservation of the saints and the other doctrines of grace.  Sadly, this assumption is not the case.  Neither Augustine, his strict follower, Gottschalk, nor Thomas Aquinas affirm the preservation of the saints.  Grace may be lost unless one is also predestined to persevere.  Once more Thomas Aquinas is a good Augustinian when he says: “Many have meritorious works who do not obtain perseverance …” [7]

Similarly, Aquinas also seems to have held confused and imperfect views of total depravity.  Sin, in fact, does not seem to occupy an important place in Thomas’s writings.  In Gilson’s index there is no entry for sin, depravity, the fall, or folly.  For a discussion of Thomas’s view of sin, one must consult his doctrine of free will and grace. It is not surprising, then, Thomas argues that natural light is sufficient for natural knowledge. Consequently, human nature is not altogether corrupted by sin. [8]

The effects of this view of human nature become evident in Thomas’s approach to the existence of God. In several places Thomas argues that the existence of God is not self-evident because sinful men can conceive that God does not exist, and if something is self-evident it cannot be conceived by anyone as not existing.  He proves this by citing “the ancients,” that is, the ancient Greek philosophers. He also cites the fact that the fool denies the existence of God.

Surprisingly, instead of attributing such denials to the noetic depravity of men and the fact that they suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18), Thomas takes these statements of the fool and the ancients at face value. He then uses them as an argument against the self-evident character of the existence of God. Nothing could more pointedly inform us of Thomas’s inflated view of the powers of fallen human reason.

Here are the quotes from Aquinas: “And, contrary to the Point made by the first argument, it does not follow immediately that, as soon as we know the meaning of the name God, the existence of God is known. It does not follow first because it is not known to all, even including those who admit that God exists, that God is that than which a greater cannot be thought. After all, many ancients said that this world itself was God.” [9] Cf. also: “On the contrary, no one can mentally admit the opposite of what is self-evident; as the Philosopher … states concerning the first principles of demonstration. But the opposite of the proposition “God is” can be mentally admitted: The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God (Ps. Lii. 1). Therefore that God exists is not self-evident.” [10]

 Thus, despite the promising character of Thomas’s views of predestination and grace, he falls short of truly appreciating the total depravity of man including his reason.  This in turn profoundly controls his approach to apologetics and the theistic proofs. This is why Aquinas can say that the fool and the ancients disprove the self-evident-ness of the existence of God. This is clear evidence that Thomas indulged deficient views of human depravity.


They Just Keep Missing the Point

In my view those currently attacking Van Til and presuppositionalism are engaged in a gigantic enterprise of missing the point.  They keep interpreting Romans 1:18-23 over and over and again and again wrongly! To put it differently, they keep making the same exegetical mistake over and over again.  They keep affirming that Romans 1 teaches that we can demonstrate the existence of God to men.  They keep saying that men can know that God exists. But that is emphatically not what the passage says.  It does not say that men can know God.  It does not say that we can demonstrate to men who do not know God that God exists. It says that men do know God and that they do not need this demonstrated to them.  It will probably do no good to quote the passage—since this false understanding is so deeply embedded in the thinking of Classical Apologists—, but let me do so one more time.  Here is what Paul actually says: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”

Men according to Paul not only may know God, they do know God. They know God because they suppress the truth in unrighteousness.  They know God because that which is known about God is evident within them.  They know God because since the creation of the world His eternal power and divine nature are clearly seen and understood.  They know God because they are without excuse.  (Paul grounds their accountability on the fact that they know God.  They are not simply potentially without excuse because they may come to know God.  They are without excuse because they do know God.) Finally, they know God, because they sinfully refused to honor Him or give thanks.

The passage is clear. Men do not merely have the capability of knowing God after a theistic proof is presented.  They know God before such a proof is presented.  Yes, this knowledge is through the things that are made, but this does not mean that their knowledge of God is the result of a properly constructed theistic proof.  Their knowledge of God is both mediated to them through creation and implanted in them by creation.

It should not be surprising that his modern followers misinterpret Romans 1.  They are simply following in the footsteps of the identical mistake made by Thomas Aquinas.

Listen to his argument in Summa Theologica Question 2, Article 2: “The Apostle says: “The invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Rm. 1:20). But this would not be unless the existence of God could be demonstrated through the things that are made; for the first thing we must know of anything is whether it exists.” Thomas takes (and the surrounding context of his assertion simply emphasizes this) Romans 1:20 to mean that the existence of God is not self-evident or implanted in man, but can be demonstrated.

Listen to Thomas in Summa Contra Gentiles, Chapter 12, which is entitled: “THE OPINION OF THOSE WHO SAY THAT THE EXISTENCE OF GOD CANNOT BE DEMONSTRATED BUT IS HELD BY FAITH ALONE.”  Once more in proving that the existence of God can be demonstrated, he brings up Romans 1:20. He says: “The falsity of this opinion is shown to us, first, from the art of demonstration which teaches us to arrive at causes from their effects. Then, it is shown to us from the order of the sciences. For, as it is said in the Metaphysics [IV, 3], if there is no knowable substance higher than sensible substance, there will be no science higher than physics. It is shown, thirdly, from the pursuit of the philosophers, who have striven to demonstrate that God exists. Finally, it is shown to us by the truth in the words of the Apostle Paul: “For the invisible things of God… are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Rom. 1:20).”  Once more, it is clear that Thomas has misunderstood Romans 1.  He thinks it means that one can “arrive at” and “demonstrate” that God exists.  I have to say it again.  This is not what Romans 1:20 teaches.  It teaches men do know God. It is not something that they “arrive at” after it has been demonstrated to them.  To echo Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-21, if the knowledge of God is something to be arrived at, then their being without excuse is something to be arrived at.  According to Paul, all men are without excuse precisely because they do know God without the necessity of demonstration.


Calvin and Aquinas Contrasted

Richard Muller is well-known for books like Unaccommodated Calvin.  I had to read that book back in the days when I was studying for my PhD.  Muller’s point (or at least one of his main points) was that the contrast between Calvin and the Reformed Scholastics who followed him in the next century had been overdrawn by many scholars in the 20th Century who had bought in to the Calvin versus the Calvinists movement. Muller showed (I think successfully.) that there were clear indications of a scholastic methodology in Calvin that showed much more continuity with his Calvinistic successors and his Medieval predecessors.

But now we are confronted with a much more specific claim.  It is that Calvin was controlled not only by a methodology common to the Medieval scholastics, but that he adopted the Thomist views of natural theology and apologetics.  Cf. J. V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics.

Sorry, folks, as they say here in the South, That dog won’t hunt!

As I said previously, I recently read up on and then lectured on Thomas Aquinas for my class in apologetics.  I immediately followed that with a lecture on Calvin’s masterful treatment of the knowledge of God in Book 1, Chapters 1-9 of the Institutes.  I think even a novice cannot fail to notice a massive difference in the ethos of Thomas’ opening chapters in Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles.  But this is not a superficial impression without a substantial basis.  In this case the accessibility and biblicity of Calvin manifests a much different approach to the subject of the knowledge of God than that of Thomas Aquinas.  Let me lay out the theological contrasts between Thomas and Calvin.

First, Calvin identifies himself with a theological tradition in regard to the knowledge of God which Thomas rejects.  Thomas rejects the notion that the knowledge of the existence of God is naturally implanted. He argues, as we have seen, that strictly speaking the knowledge of God is not self-evident. He admits: “To know God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us …” Yet he says that this is “not to know absolutely that God exists, just as to know that someone is approaching is not to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter that is approaching.”[11] He goes on in the next article to assert: “Hence, the existence of God, in so far as it is not self-evident to us, can be demonstrated from those of His effects which are known to us.”[12]

Calvin, on the other hand, declares explicitly and repeatedly that men have a natural knowledge of God which they cannot evade or erase. He has much more in common with the Christian Platonist tradition embodied in Augustine, Anselm, the Damascene, and Bonaventura which affirmed that the knowledge of the existence of God was innate or at least naturally implanted in men.  Listen to Calvin’s statements on this subject. Calvin’s language here is absolutely incapable of misunderstanding.

We lay it down as a position not to be controverted that the human mind, even by natural instinct, possesses some sense of a Deity.  For that no man might shelter himself under the pretext of ignorance, God hath given to all some apprehension of his existence, the memory of which he frequently and insensibly renews; so that, as men universally know that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, they must be condemned by their own testimony, for not having worshipped him and consecrated their lives to his service.  If we seek for ignorance of a Deity, it is nowhere more likely to be found, than among the tribes the most stupid and furthest from civilization.  But, as the celebrated Cicero observes, there is no nation so barbarous, no race so savage; as not to be firmly persuaded of the being of a God. [13]

We read of none guilty of more audacious or unbridled contempt of the Deity than Caligula; yet no man ever trembled with greater distress at any instance of Divine wrath, so that he was constrained to dread the Divinity whom he professed to despise.  This you may always see exemplified in persons of a similar character …. The impious themselves, therefore, exemplify the observation, that the idea of a God is never lost in the human mind. [14]

It will always be evident to persons of correct judgment, that the idea of a Deity impressed on the mind of man is indelible. That all have by nature an innate persuasion of the Divine existence, a persuasion inseparable from their very constitution, we have abundant evidence in the contumacy of the wicked, whose furious struggles to extricate themselves from the fear of God are unavailing. [15]

The contrast between Thomas and Calvin on this matter is clear.


More Contrasts between Calvin and Aquinas!

Second, Calvin emphasizes explicitly and repeatedly the effect of the fall on man’s knowledge of God.  Though men have a naturally implanted knowledge of God given to them by and in creation, this knowledge never develops into a “true” knowledge in the sense of a practical and religious principle which leads them to worship God aright.  Let me put that in my own words, but they are words which, I think, rightly embody Calvin’s view.  He believes that men have a natural revelation of God, but that this natural revelation never results in a natural theology which can guide them appropriately in worship or in life in general. This emphasis is practically absent in Thomas.  Listen to Calvin:

It must also be remarked, that, though they strive against their own natural understanding, and desire not only to banish him thence, but even to annihilate him in heaven, their insensibility can never prevail so as to prevent God from sometimes recalling them to his tribunal.  But as no dread restrains them from violent opposition to the divine will, it is evident, as long as they are carried away with such a blind impetuosity, that they are governed by a brutish forgetfulness of God. [16]

At length they involve themselves in such a vast accumulation of errors, that those sparks which enable them to discover the glory of God are smothered, and at last extinguished by the criminal darkness of iniquity.  That seed, which it is impossible to eradicate, a sense of the existence of a Deity, yet remains; but so corrupted as to produce only the worst of fruits.  Yet this is a further proof of what I now contend for, that the idea of God is naturally engraved on the hearts of men, since necessity extorts a confession of it, even from reprobates themselves.  In a moment of tranquility they facetiously mock the Divine Being, and with loquacious impertinence in many derogate from his power.  But if any despair oppress them, it stimulates them to seek him, and dictates concise prayers, which prove that they are not altogether ignorant of God, but that what ought to have appeared before had been suppressed by obstinacy. [17]

Third, this very different assessment of the effect of the fall on man’s knowledge of God comes to concrete expression in the very different use which Thomas and Calvin make of a classic passage on the subject. I have in mind, of course, Psalm 53:1 which reads in part: “The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God,” They are corrupt, and have committed abominable injustice; There is no one who does good.”  Both Thomas and Calvin cite this text, but how different is the use they make of it!

Thomas sees it as proof that the existence of God is not self-evident. He takes at face value the fool’s assertion that there is no God. Aquinas says: “On the contrary, no one can mentally admit the opposite of what is self-evident; as the Philosopher … states concerning the first principles of demonstration. But the opposite of the proposition “God is” can be mentally admitted: The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God (Ps. Lii. 1). Therefore that God exists is not self-evident.” [18]

Calvin, on the other hand, takes it as evidence of the deep depravity of the fool.  The fool denies a knowledge of God that is ineradicably implanted in him. Here is Calvin’s comment in the Institutes on Psalm 53:1 with some context:

While experience testifies that the seeds of religion are sown by God in every heart, we scarcely find one man in a hundred who cherishes what he has received, and not one in whom they grow to maturity, much less bear fruit in due season.  Some perhaps grow vain in their own superstitions, while others revolt from God with intentional wickedness; but all degenerate from the true knowledge of him.  The fact is, that no genuine piety remains in the world.  But, in saying that some fall into superstition through error, I would not insinuate that their ignorance excuses them from guilt; because their blindness is always connected with pride, vanity, and contumacy. [19]

David’s assertion, that “the fool hath said in his heart, There is no God,” is primarily, as we shall soon see in another place, to be restricted to those who extinguish the light of nature and willfully stupefy themselves. [20]


Calvin and Aquinas Contrasted Yet More!

Fourth, there is a very different view of the usefulness of philosophy espoused by Thomas in contrast to Calvin.  Thomas cites with admiration “the philosopher,” Aristotle, throughout his works and certainly in his treatment of the knowledge of the existence of God. This statement in the opening pages of Summa Theologica is typical: “No one can mentally admit the opposite of what is self-evident; as the Philosopher (Metaph. iv. lect. vi.) states concerning the first principles of demonstration.” [21]

Calvin, in contrast, denounces the value of philosophy and the schools.

Cold and frivolous, then, are the speculations of those who employ themselves in disquisitions on the essence of God, when it would be more interesting to us to become acquainted with his character, and to know what is agreeable to His nature. [22]

This disease affects, not only the vulgar and ignorant, but the most eminent, and those who, in other things, discover peculiar sagacity.  How abundantly have all the philosophers, in this respect, betrayed their stupidity and folly!  For, to spare others, chargeable with greater absurdities, Plato himself, the most religious and judicious of them all, loses himself in his round globe …. I speak exclusively of the excellent of mankind, not of the vulgar, whose madness in the profanation of divine truth has known no bounds. [23]

Fifth, and consequently, Calvin sees little value in the theistic proofs brought forward by scholastics like Thomas. This is, first of all, the case because men are intuitively and immediately struck by the glory of God in creation in such a way as to make the theistic proofs unnecessary.

As the perfection of a happy life consists in the knowledge of God, that no man might be precluded from attaining felicity, God hath not only sown in the minds of men the seed of religion, already mentioned, but hath manifested himself in the formation of every part of the world, and daily presents himself to public view, in such a manner, that they cannot open their eyes without being constrained to behold him.  His essence indeed is incomprehensible so that his Majesty is not to be perceived by the human senses; but on all his works he hath inscribed his glory in characters so clear, unequivocal, and striking, that the most illiterate and stupid cannot exculpate themselves by the plea of ignorance. [24]

And, in the first place, whithersoever you turn your eyes, there is not an atom of the world in which you cannot behold some brilliant sparks at least of his glory.  But you cannot at one view take a survey of this most ample and beautiful machine in all its vast extent, without being completely overwhelmed with its infinite splendour. [25]

Thomas acknowledged that some men are incapable of either following or profiting from his theistic proofs.  Listen to what he says:

Reply to Objection 1: The existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles; for faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes in Book 1 nature, and perfection supposes something that can be perfected. Nevertheless, there is nothing to prevent a man, who cannot grasp a proof, accepting, as a matter of faith, something which in itself is capable of being scientifically known and demonstrated. [26]

Calvin, on the other hand, thinks this evidence is open even to those who are not experts.

Of his wonderful wisdom, both heaven and earth contain innumerable proofs; not only those more abstruse things, which are the subjects of astronomy, medicine, and the whole science of physics, but those things which force themselves on the view of the most illiterate of mankind, so that they cannot open their eyes without being constrained to witness them.  Adepts indeed, in those liberal arts, or persons just initiated into them, are thereby enabled to proceed much further in investigating the secrets of Divine Wisdom.  Yet ignorance of those sciences prevents no man from such a survey of the workmanship of God, as is more than sufficient to excite his admirations of the Divine Architect … since the meanest and most illiterate of mankind, who are furnished with no other assistance than their own eyes, cannot be ignorant of the excellence of the Divine skill, … it is evident, that the Lord abundantly manifests his wisdom to every individual on earth.  (1:5:2)

This same emphasis is sounded a few paragraphs later.  Here, however, Calvin explicitly decries the need for long and laborious argumentations to prove the existence of God.  If anything ever qualified as long and laborious argumentation, it was surely Thomas’s “Five Ways.”

We see that there is no need of any long or laborious argumentation to obtain and produce testimonies for illustrating and asserting the Divine Majesty; since, from the few which we have selected and cursorily mentioned, it appears that they are every where so evident and obvious, as easily to be distinguished by the eyes, and pointed out with the fingers.  (1:5:9)

Thomas, of course, elaborates at some length his careful and technical demonstrations of the existence of God as the foundation for his argument both in Summa Theologica and in Summa Contra Gentiles. He says:

[5] Now, among the inquiries that we must undertake concerning God in Himself, we must set down in the beginning that whereby His Existence is demonstrated, as the necessary foundation of the whole work. For, if we do not demonstrate that God exists, all consideration of divine things is necessarily suppressed. [27]

Sixth, not surprisingly as a result of all this, Thomas and Calvin interpret the apologetic significance of Romans 1:19-20 very differently.

Thomas sees this classic text as proof that the existence of God may be demonstrated to men by philosophical arguments.  In chapter 12 Aquinas is refuting the “opinion of those who say that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated but is held by faith alone.”  In response he says: “Finally, it is shown to us by the truth in the words of the apostle Paul: “for the invisible things of God… are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Rom. 1:20).

Calvin, on the other hand, sees Romans 1:19-20 as proof that all men (“even the most stupid tribe”) know God intuitively or immediately in creation.  He says:

The reason why the prophet attributes to the heavenly creatures a language known to every nation [Ps. 19:2 ff.] is that therein lies an attestation of divinity so apparent that it ought not to escape the gaze of even the most stupid tribe.  The apostle declares this more clearly: “What men need to know concerning God has been disclosed to them, . . . for one an all gaze upon his invisible nature, known from the creation of the world, even unto his eternal power and divinity. [Rom. 1:19-20 p.] [28]

In the foregoing I have compiled six, plain differences in the apologetic approach of Thomas and Calvin to the existence of God.  Whatever we may think of finding a scholastic methodology in Calvin, we do not find a Thomistic natural theology.



[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Question 2, Article 2

[3] Gordon H. Clark, Thales to Dewey, 272-273.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Volume 1, Question 23, Articles 1-8.

[5] Summa Theologica, Volume 2, Question 112, Articles 1-3.

[6] Summa Theologica, Volume 2, Question 112, Articles 3.

[7] Summa Theologica, Volume 2, Question 114, Article 9.  Since the true grace of regeneration was given through the sacrament of baptism, and it was plain that not all the baptized persevered, no one committed to the notion of baptismal regeneration in any sense could hold the Calvinistic view of the perseverance of the saints.

[8] Summa Theologica, Volume 2, Question 109, Article 2.

[9] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 1, Chapter 11, Paragraph 3

[10] Summa Theologica, Volume 1, Question 2, Article 1

[11] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Volume 1, Question 2, Article 1)

[12] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles (Book 1, Chapters 10-12).

[13] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 1)

[14] Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 2)

[15] Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 3)

[16] Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book 1, Chapter 4, Section 2)

[17] Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book 1, Chapter 4, Section 4)

[18] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Volume 1, Question 2, Article 1)

[19] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book 1, Chapter 4, Section 1)

[20] Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book 1, Chapter 4, Section 2)

[21] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Volume 1, Question 2, Article 1)

[22] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 2)

[23] Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book 1, Chapter 5, Section 11)

[24] Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book 1, Chapter 5, Section 1)

[25] Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book 1, Chapter 5, Section 1)

[26] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Volume 1, Question 2, Second Article)

[27] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles (Book 1, Chapter 9, Paragraph 5)

[28] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book 1, Chapter 5, Section 1)

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