Presuppositional Ponderings after Reading Thomas Aquinas, part 1

by | Nov 7, 2019 | Apologetics

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.” [i] 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 posts to follow 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.


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