Presuppositional Ponderings after Reading Thomas Aquinas, part 3

by | Nov 13, 2019 | Apologetics

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. [1] 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. [2] 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 …”[3]

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 …” [4]

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. [5]

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.” [6] 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.” [7]

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.


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

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

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

[4] 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.

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

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

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

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