Presuppositional Ponderings after Reading Thomas Aquinas, part 7

by | Nov 26, 2019 | Apologetics

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.” [1]

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. [2]

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. [3]

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. [4]

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. [5] 

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. [6]

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. [7]

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.] [8]

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.

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

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

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

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

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

[6] Summa Theologica (Volume 1, Question 2, Second Article)

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

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

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