Aquinas Reconsidered

Oliphint's claim that Aquinas' reading has "no basis" in the text of Scripture becomes an indictment of Calvin and the Reformed tradition as well.

Scott Oliphint’s highly negative verdict on the thought of Thomas Aquinas demands some response if only because of the need to have, in Reformed circles, the balanced understanding of Aquinas’ theology and philosophy that Oliphint fails to provide. It is a fairly consistent refrain throughout Oliphint’s study that Aquinas failed in an attempt to “synthesize ‘purely’ philosophical with theological principia”–failed because “the two principia cannot be merged” (p. 124). These “ultimately incompatible principia” are, according to Oliphint, “the neutrality of natural reason … and the truth of God’s revelation” (p. 126).

I propose to take up the two questions that are the focus of Oliphint’s book, the problem of knowledge, specifically knowledge of God; and in a second part of the review, Aquinas’ understanding of the analogy of being, the proofs, and the relationship of divine simplicity to the Trinity. Concluding comments will follow as a third part.

Oliphint rests his examination of the praeambula fidei on Ralph McInerny’s recent study as if McInerny argued that the preambles, namely, the proofs of Thomas’ Summa, are autonomous “purely philosophical” arguments, products of “pure nature” (p. 79, n63), “outside the realm of theology,” viewed by Aquinas as necessary “in order properly to assess the knowledge of God” (pp. 25-26, 27). What McInerny actually says is that “It is obvious that the phrase ‘preambles of faith’ is one devised and used from the side of belief; it is the believer who compares truths about God that he holds only thanks to the grace of faith and those truths about God that philosophers come to know by way of demonstrative proof.”1 This is a very different reading of Aquinas than Oliphint’s claim that “Thomas thinks that natural reason forms the foundational structure of which revelation is the superstructure” (p. 13). Oliphint is mistaken in his reading of Thomism as attempting to merge the antithetical “principia” of a neutral “natural reason” and the truth of revelation.

When Aquinas makes his distinction between those truths concerning God that can be known through human reason and those that exceed the capability of reason and must be known by revelation, he is not segmenting off rational from revealed truths: rather he is placing his entire rational presentation within the compass of sacred doctrine which deals with God “not only so far as he can be known through creatures just as philosophers knew him … but also so far as He is known to himself alone and revealed to others.”2 Aquinas did not view truths of reason and truths of revelation as incompatible or in need of synthesis. Underlying the theological project of Aquinas’ two Summas is the assumption that what is true is true whatever its immediate source, given that all truth ultimately comes from God who is true. Aquinas’ project is not an attempt to synthesize incompatibles.

The basis for this particular misinterpretation appears in Oliphint’s definition of duplex veritatis modus, incorrectly rendered as “truth in two ways” and “double ways of truth.”3 “Modus” is first person singular–with the result that the term indicates one “twofold way” or “twofold mode” of truth and not two ways of truth. The mistranslation is probably what leads Oliphint to confuse duplex veritatis modus with duplex veritas or “double truth.” Oliphint goes on to comment “that it is possible for something to be true in philosophy but false in theology, or false in theology but true in philosophy,” namely, double truth (p. 129). Aquinas affirms a twofold way of knowing truth about God–but he denied double truth.

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