Presuppositional Ponderings after Reading Thomas Aquinas, part 2

by | Nov 11, 2019 | 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.”[1]

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.”   [2]

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.

In further posts I will demonstrate some of the mistakes that are involved in privileging Aquinas’s views.

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

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

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