One of the reasons so many Reformational Christians shy away from St. Thomas is because, during the Council of Trent, Thomas’ great Summa was set in the middle of the council and consulted often as Rome gave its conciliar canons and anathemas against the Reformation. Since then, many lay Evangelicals have understandably wondered how a faithful Protestant could in good conscience seek wisdom from a man whose writings were used to condemn his own faith tradition.

Should Ole Aquinas be Forgot and Never Brought to Mind

A Response to Dewey Roberts’ “Aquinas Not a Safe Guide for Protestants”

One of the reasons so many Reformational Christians shy away from St. Thomas is because, during the Council of Trent, Thomas’ great Summa was set in the middle of the council and consulted often as Rome gave its conciliar canons and anathemas against the Reformation.  Since then, many lay Evangelicals have understandably wondered how a faithful Protestant could in good conscience seek wisdom from a man whose writings were used to condemn his own faith tradition. 


Should Ole Aquinas be Forgot and Never Brought to Mind?[1]

I am a Reformed-Thomist, meaning that I (i) adhere to the metaphysics and (some aspects of the) epistemology of St. Thomas Aquinas, and (ii) think the best approach to theology is one wherein Thomas’ system is bathed in the cleansing waters of the Reformation—more particularly, the Reformed tradition.  Hence, the reader may appreciate why I was both delighted and disturbed by Reverend Dewey Roberts’ recent articles encouraging Protestants not to read Aquinas (here and here).  I was delighted, since any attention given to the Angelic Doctor will inevitably encourage more people to read his writings—even when that attention is negative.  More importantly, I was happy to see Rev. Roberts expose some of the errors of Thomas’ teachings.  St. Thomas was, indeed, fallible, and I agree with the notion that, not only were many of his opinions false, but that, when taken to their logical (or, at least, reasonable) conclusions, some of Aquinas’ teachings may very well lead one into heresy.  To be sure, this can be said of any outstanding theologian.  Calvin himself said that even the best theologian is no better than about 80% correct.  And there are numerous examples within the Reformed tradition itself where, if we were to take a particular thinker’s position on a specific issue and carry it out to its logical (or, at least, reasonable) conclusion, then we might be led down the “Primrose Path” to heresy.  To offer just a few examples: Cornelius Van Til’s assertion that “God is one Person and three Persons” has been interpreted by some of his best students as saying that God is one and three at the same time and in the same sense—which either entails the heresy of modalism or affirms the essential incoherence of trinitarianism; the univocism of Gordon Clark would seem to entail both a denial of the divine simplicity and even the infinitude of the divine essence; and, finally, even Calvin himself offered several unguarded statements about the doctrine of reprobation that caused some of his own Reformed brethren to accuse him of (at least coming close to) making God the Author of sin.

The solution a Reformed theologian ought to adopt when reading someone in his own tradition is to presume his doctrine is within the bounds of orthodoxy until he is absolutely convinced via undeniable evidence that heresy has been committed.  I believe this for two reasons: First, there is a general disposition the academic community tries to instill in everyone that we may call the “courtesy rule,” which says that one ought to assume his opponent is sincere and consistent until the evidence proves otherwise.  This means, for example, that if you’re reading someone and there are at least two possible interpretations of his words—where one entails the author is either lying or inconsistent while the other renders his sincerity and/or consistency a possibility—then the scholar is to always adopt the more charitable interpretation.  Jonathan Edwards was a master of this, for he almost always improved his opponents’ position(s) before offering his refutation.  Now, if we think about this courtesy rule for even a second, we realize that it’s little more than an extension of the golden rule.  In short, Jesus himself endorsed the courtesy rule!  A second reason I adopt a presumption of innocence while reading the works of my Reformed brothers is that they are my brothers.  I would no more accuse a member of my spiritual family of heresy, apart from undeniable evidence to the contrary, than I would a member of my own physical family!  I have read enough of Van Til, Clark, and Calvin to know that they’d be appalled to see their views taken to such extremes.  And, in fact, reasonable interpretations of their heterodox expressions have shown their consistency with orthodoxy.

What offended me about Rev. Roberts’ article is that he did not extend the courtesy rule to Thomas Aquinas.  While I will reiterate my conviction that there is much in Aquinas that must be shunned by a Reformed thinker (e.g., his doctrine of transubstantiation is both beautiful with respect to the intellectual acumen it took to articulate it, and yet revolting when its soteriological implications are carried out), there is also much that can and should be welcomed by any Reformed Christian.  Indeed, when many of Thomas’ ideas are accepted they illuminate some of the most fundamental convictions upheld by the Reformed tradition.  To give just a few examples, Thomas’ arguments for God’s existence and the divine simplicity, along with his articulation of the doctrine of the divine omniscience, serve as the metaphysical underpinnings of the Reformed doctrines of grace.  How can God be immense and immanent as well as transcendent if he is not altogether simple?  How can God absolutely decree everything that comes to pass if he is not altogether unchanging (which presupposes simplicity) and omniscient?   Indeed, with respect to his doctrine of God’s omniscience, it is Thomas, more than anyone else, who anticipated and refuted the doctrine of middle knowledge three hundred years before Luis de Molina was even born.[2]

The following is a brief response to some of Rev. Roberts’ more egregious mistakes:

“First,” Rev. Roberts writes,

Aquinas did not believe in Sola Scriptura. The purpose Aquinas had in writing [the] Summa Theologica was to combine the theology of the Scripture with the theological systems of the ancient Greek philosophers. There are times he begins his investigation of a theological issue with a quote [sic] of Scripture (though more rarely than one would like). More frequently, he will begin with a quote [sic] from Augustine. Yet, on other occasions he will start with a quote [sic] from one of the ancient philosophers. For one who believes in Sola Scriptura, it was very disconcerting to read such an approach to theological issues. The ancient philosophers are in no wise on the same ground as the inspired authors of Scripture.[3]

There are several problems with these assertions.  First, a brief glance at the writings of Aquinas is sufficient to show that he would never place any author on a par with holy writ.  In fact, and contrary to many Catholic and Protestant experts on Thomas, I believe Aquinas did affirm the material sufficiency of Scripture, which is the heart of sola scriptura.  Historically, material sufficiency is the doctrine stating that everything necessary for salvation is taught in Scripture; formal sufficiency is the doctrine stating that anyone can read the Scriptures and understand what is required of them to be saved (i.e., the plain things are the main things and vice versa), without depending on any outside authority for help in interpreting the Bible.  The latter is a hermeneutical principle, summarized by the word “perspicuity.”  The former is the heart of the debate on authority that lit up Christendom during the 16th century.  And, right at the beginning of his famous Summa, while addressing the question as to whether sacred doctrine (i.e., theology) can be a matter of argumentation, Thomas explicitly subordinates all authorities—Pagan and Christian—under the authority of the Bible:

 This [sacred] doctrine [or theology] is especially based upon arguments from authority, inasmuch as its principles are obtained by revelation: thus we ought to believe on the authority of those to whom the revelation has been made. Nor does this take away from the dignity of this doctrine, for although the argument from authority based on human reason is the weakest, yet the argument from authority based on divine revelation is the strongest. But sacred doctrine makes use even of human reason, not, indeed, to prove faith (for thereby the merit of faith would come to an end), but to make clear other things that are put forward in this doctrine. Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity. Hence the Apostle says: “Bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Hence sacred doctrine makes use also of the authority of philosophers in those questions in which they were able to know the truth by natural reason, as Paul quotes a saying of Aratus: “As some also of your own poets said: For we are also His offspring” (Acts 17:28). Nevertheless, sacred doctrine makes use of these authorities as extrinsic and probable arguments; but properly uses the authority of the canonical Scriptures as an incontrovertible proof, and the authority of the doctors of the Church as one that may properly be used, yet merely as probable.  For our faith rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors. Hence Augustine says (Epis. ad Hieron. xix, 1): “Only those books of Scripture which are called canonical have I learned to hold in such honor as to believe their authors have not erred in any way in writing them. But other authors I so read as not to deem everything in their works to be true, merely on account of their having so thought and written, whatever may have been their holiness and learning.” (Summa Theol. Ia.1.8—italics added)[4]

This quotation not only illustrates Aquinas’ total reliance upon Scripture for his doctrine and life, it also exposes Roberts’ criticism of Thomas’ quotations of nonbiblical authorities, as if they’re equal to Scripture, as the straw man that it is.  Indeed, if the Dumb Ox is to be criticized for quoting nonChristian scholars, will Roberts critique the Apostle Paul for doing the same?

“Second,” Roberts tells us that Thomas is no Augustinian.  Instead, he says,

Augustine’s theological system was progressively developing until he reached a mature faith. Along the way he cast off his former errors—one of which was concerning salvation that was very close to the Pelagian heresy, which he so effectively combated for the good of the church. Pelagius, like Aquinas and the younger Augustine, also sought to synthesize Scripture with the systems of the ancient philosophers.  Many of the heresies of the early church were from the writings of the philosophers, particularly concerning the false ideas on the will of man. Because Aquinas tried to synthesize Scripture (and Augustinianism) with the teachings of the philosophers (even as Pelagius had also tried to do), it is more appropriate to classify Thomism as Semi-pelagianism [sic].[5]

It’s hard to know where to begin with these errors.  Our first quotation from the prolegomena section of Aquinas’ Summa should at least illustrate the fact that Thomas never quoted any authority outside the Bible as if it were equal to Scripture.  Roberts here confuses synthesis with syncretism.  However, these terms need not be synonymous.  Syncretism is the act of fusing together different and even contradictory modes of thought into one gigantic stew, wherein the original meaning of all of them becomes lost.  An ancient example of syncretism is Manichaeism, which combined elements of Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism into yet a fifth belief-system that contradicted the other four; and a modern example of religious syncretism is Sikhism, which is the fusion of various Hindu philosophies with Islam.  Synthesis, on the other hand, can be defined as the attempt to parse out the good and bad elements of a particular perspective and then combine it with a larger whole.  To be sure, some philosophers, such as Hegel, have attempted a synthesis whereby they sought to bring together different modes of thought that were admittedly contradictory—without parsing out the bad elements of each in an attempt to reconcile them.  Barth, Brunner, and other dialectical theologians of the 20th century sought to do the same.  Indeed, neither Hegel nor Barth nor Brunner believed the laws of logic applied to God, and so their method was to combine various contradictory notions into their respective systems and hold them in tension.

Thomas’ dialectic was much different than that of Barth and Brunner.  In his Summa he entertained hundreds of questions, each of which yielded a yes or no answer; for each question he would give all of the arguments he was aware of that supported the position he usually opposed, then he would quote an authority that asserted the contradictory conclusion, and then he would say “I answer that,” followed by arguments supporting his viewpoint and then answers to the objections to his perspective.   Thus, far from being a form of syncretism, Aquinas’ work is a form of synthesis whereby he retained what was good in the position he opposed, while also defending what he thought was the orthodox perspective on whatever topic he was discussing at the time.  Far from trying to show that the Bible is saying what the pagans were saying, Thomas accepted the word of a pagan only insofar as that thinker agreed with Scripture; but he was also insistent that, whenever a particular philosophy contradicts Scripture, holy writ cannot be broken.  Aristotle is clearly a favorite pagan philosopher of Thomas—much in the same way Calvin was fond of quoting Cicero.  Like Paul, Aristotle believed God’s existence could be proven by reflecting upon natural revelation (cf. Rom 1.20; Aristotle Metaphysics (Bk. 12)).  However, Aquinas was quick to disagree with Aristotle whenever his view of God contradicted the Bible—e.g., Aquinas, unlike Aristotle, believed the universe had an absolute beginning; also, Aquinas, unlike Aristotle, believed God knew the world.  As many Thomists would agree, Thomas was doing little more than placing the truths of Augustine in the terms of Aristotle.  Anecdotal evidence for this is Roberts’ observation that Thomas frequently began his response (“I answer that …”) section of an article with a quotation of Augustine.

Pelagius rejected three Augustinian doctrines that Aquinas affirmed—namely, unconditional election, particular redemption, and the doctrine of effectual calling.  Roberts admits the former.  He says nothing of Thomas’ view of the atonement, though it is clear that, at least for Thomas’ disciples, Christ’s atonement is sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect alone, which is essentially the same doctrine we find among Reformed theologians.[6]  As for the efficacious call, Thomas says:

     Two things are requisite for faith. First, that the things which are of faith be proposed to man: this is necessary in order that man believe anything explicitly.  The second thing requisite for faith is the assent of the believer to the things which are proposed to him.

     Accordingly, as regards the first of these, faith must needs be from God.  Because those things that are of faith surpass human reason, hence they do not come to man’s knowledge, unless God reveal them. To some, indeed, they are revealed by God immediately, as those things which were revealed to the apostles and the prophets, while to some they are proposed by God in sending preachers of the faith—this according to Rom. x.15: How shall they preach, unless they are sent?

     As regards the second, viz., a man’s assent to the things which are of faith, we may observe a twofold cause, one of external inducement, such as seeing a miracle, or being persuaded by someone to embrace the faith: neither of which is a sufficient cause, since of those who see the same miracle, or who hear the same sermon, some believe, and some do not.  Hence, we must assert another internal cause, which moves man inwardly to assent to matters of faith.

     The Pelagians held that this cause was nothing else than man’s free-will: and consequently they said that the beginning of faith is from ourselves, inasmuch as, to wit, it is in our power to be ready to assent to things which are of faith, but that the consummation of faith is from God, Who proposes to us the things we have to believe.  But this is false, for, since man, by assenting to matters of faith, is raised above his nature, this must needs accrue to him from some supernatural principle moving him inwardly: and this is God.  Therefore faith, as regards the assent which is the chief act of faith, is from God moving man inwardly by grace. (Summa Theol. IIa-IIae.6.2)

A few lines later, while answering an objection to his position on this matter, Thomas says, “To believe does indeed depend upon the will of the believer: but man’s will needs to be prepared by God with grace, in order that he may be raised to things which are above his nature….” And so, Thomas is clearly not a Pelagian; nor is he a Semi-Pelagian, since, as far as he is concerned (and, contra the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians), the grace that moves us to believe is both necessary and sufficient for an individual’s salvation.

In light of what we have just said, the reader can imagine my horror while reading Rev. Roberts assert that, while “Aquinas has some good things to say about theology proper, … he is wrong on every single point of soteriology.”  So, Thomas is wrong about effectual calling, which is an obvious soteriological point?

Of course, Rev. Roberts presses on to note that too “many Reformed scholars are mesmerized by Aquinas’ clear assertion of unconditional election, but they fail to realize that later in his Summa Theologica he teaches that election can be nullified by the unfaithfulness of the elect.”  However, this is a misreading of Thomas.  Aquinas does not believe anyone’s election can be nullified, since election is unto salvation—which includes justification, sanctification, and glorification; however, a person can find himself in a state of grace only to lose it.  In modern parlance, a person can lose his salvation. For the person who does lose his salvation, he was never elect in the first place (cf. Summa Theol. IIa-IIae.4.4).[7]

A final point I’ll touch on is Roberts’ misunderstanding of Thomas’ view of justification.  To be sure, he makes fewer errors on this topic than he does on the others, for it is indeed the case that Aquinas’ definition of justification included the notion of “infusing grace or righteousness into the soul of the believer.”  In his second essay Roberts states:

First, Aquinas did not believe in the great Protestant principle of Sola Fide—faith alone. Concerning the gospel, he wrote:

There is a two-fold element in the Law of the Gospel. There is the chief element, viz., the grace of the Holy Ghost bestowed inwardly. And as to this, the New Law justifies…. The other element of the Evangelical Law is secondary: namely, the teachings of faith, and those commandments which direct human actions. And as to this, the New Law does not justify (Summa Theol. Ia-IIae.106.2).

One will notice an ellipsis in Roberts’ quotation above.  When we turn to the section of the Summa being quoted, we find the following words of Augustine: “There i.e., in the Old Testament, the law was set forth in outward fashion, that the ungodly might be afraid; here, i.e., in the New Testament, it is given in an inward manner, that they may be justified” (De Spirit et Lit. xvii).  Why would Roberts leave these words of Augustine out?  I am not sure.  One thing is for sure, however, and that is the fact that Aquinas saw himself as being in continuity with Augustine’s understanding of justification.  Also, this quotation of Augustine clarifies Thomas’ point, and should keep us from drawing Roberts’ own inference from this text, namely,

Aquinas initially places regeneration, or the Holy Ghost bestowed inwardly, as the chief element of justification. Then, he places faith on the same level as the commandments, neither of which justify us. In such a way, Aquinas contributed to the confusion of Rome on the doctrine of justification and the anathemas proclaimed by the Council of Trent against justification by faith alone.

Again, where do we begin?  Just as Scripture distinguishes between faith as a movement of the soul whereby we believe in or trust in or rely upon Christ (Acts 16.31; Eph 2.8-9) and faith as the deposit of doctrine given to the Church (Jude 3; 1 Tim 6.10,20-21), so also Thomas speaks of faith as one of the virtues of the soul (Summa Theol. IIa-IIae.1-16) as well as the deposit of doctrine given to the Church.  And, clearly, Roberts’ quotation of Aquinas speaks of faith in this latter sense.  Indeed, Thomas speaks here of “the teachings of faith.”  So, what is Thomas saying?  He’s telling us that, when speaking of the New Law as the movement of the Holy Spirit in the human soul, such a work of grace does justify; however, when speaking about the New Law as teachings of the faith (i.e., doctrine) and the commandments, such cannot justify even if followed.  Ironic, isn’t it?  When we interpret Roberts’ passage correctly, we find Thomas affirming the very thing Roberts wants to proclaim—i.e., that we are justified by the grace of God and not works of the Law!

Had Roberts done a little more reading in Thomas’ corpus, he would have discovered that, indeed, Aquinas insisted “that God, having predestinated us, has fore-chosen us by grace alone unto the adoption of children;”[8] and so, commenting on Ephesians 2.8-9, Thomas tells us that an error Paul is refuting in this passage

is that anyone can believe that faith is given by God to us on the merit of our preceding actions. To exclude this he adds “not of” preceding “works” that we merited at one time to be saved; for this is the grace, as was mentioned above, and according to Romans 11 (6): “If by grace, it is not now by works; otherwise grace is no more grace.” He follows with the reason why God saves man by faith without any preceding merits, that no man may glory in himself but refer all the glory to God. “Not for our sake, Yahweh, not for our sake, but for the sake of your name displays your glory, because of your kindness, because of your faithfulness” (Ps 115:1-2).  “That no flesh should glory in his sight. It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, justice, sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:29-30).[9]

Lest we think of Aquinas as some sort of Proto-Arminian who believed that God receives our self-generated faith by grace, Thomas also insists that free “will is inadequate for the act of faith since the contents of faith are above human reason.”  And a few lines later he states: “For this reason he adds, ‘for it is the gift of God,’ namely, faith itself. ‘For you have been granted, for the sake of Christ, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him’ (Phil 1:29).”[10]  So notice that, for Aquinas, we are predestined for salvation by grace alone, and that faith, which is the gift of God, and wholly apart from preceding works, saves us.  In short, one may infer from this text that Aquinas affirmed justification through faith alone.

Of course, our inference is not necessary, since elsewhere Thomas explicitly states that a person is justified through faith alone (sola fide).  For example, speaking of the ceremonial and moral precepts of the Torah, Thomas says “… there is no hope of justification in them [i.e., the ceremonial and moral commandments], but only in faith [Latin: sed in sola fide].”  To secure his point that the ceremonial and moral works cannot justify, Aquinas goes on to quote Romans 3.28: “For we account a man to be justified by faith, without the works of the law.”[11]  In his commentary on Rom 3.28, Thomas writes:

Then when he [Paul] says, For we hold [or maintain, account, insist], he shows how the Jews’ boasting is excluded by the law of faith, saying: For we apostles, being taught the truth by Christ, hold that a man, whomsoever he be, whether Jew or Gentile, is justified by faith: ‘He cleansed their hearts by faith’ (Ac 15:9).  And this apart from works of the law.  Not only without the ceremonial works, which did not confer grace but only signified it, but also without the works of the moral precepts, as stated in Titus 3(:5), ‘Not because of deeds done by us in righteousness.’  This, of course, means without works prior to becoming just, but not without works following it, because, as is stated in Jas (2:26): ‘Faith without works,’ i.e., subsequent works, ‘is dead,’ and, consequently, cannot justify.”[12]

The qualification Thomas derives from James 2.26, that no work preceding our justification can secure our right standing before God, while subsequent works inevitably follow our justification, is quite similar to Calvin’s famous response to “Canon 11” of the Council of Trent (i.e., “Whosoever shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than trust in the Divine mercy forgiving sins by Christ, or that this trust is the only thing by which we are justified, let him be anathema”)—namely,

I wish the reader to understand that as often as we mention faith alone in this question, we are not thinking of a dead faith, which worketh not by love, but holding faith to be the only cause of justification. (Galatians 5:6; Romans 3:22.) It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone: just as it is the heat alone of the sun which warms the earth, and yet in the sun it is not alone, because it is constantly conjoined with light.[13]

Again, Thomas is similar to the Magisterial Reformers (e.g., Calvin) insofar as he excludes both ceremonial and moral works from the grounds of our justification.  However, he is unlike many of the Magisterial Reformers insofar as he insisted that justification is the act of God whereby he infuses his righteousness into the believer’s soul, whereas Reformers like Calvin taught that justification is the act of God whereby he imputes his righteousness to the account of the believing sinner.  For this and other reasons, Aquinas cannot be considered a “Proto-Protestant.”[14]  Indeed, what Roberts gets right is where he notes that, in defining justification as an infusion of righteous rather than its imputation, Thomas confuses justification with sanctification.  But, then again, so did Luther. As McGrath notes: “Luther does not make the distinction between justification and sanctification associated with later Protestantism, treating justification as a process of becoming: fieri est iustificatio.  Justification is thus a ‘sort of beginning of God’s creation’, initium aliquod creaturae eius, by which the Christian waits in hope for the consummation of his righteousness….”[15]  Thus, in his summary of Luther’s doctrine of justification, McGrath informs us that Luther “is closer to the position of the Council of Trent than is generally realised.”[16] The forensic character of justification does not get developed until Melanchthon, Luther’s best disciple, develops the notion.[17]

Obviously, in noting all of this I am not defending Thomas over and against Calvin and Melanchthon.  Indeed, I believe that the Reformation—which begins with Luther and comes into full flower in the Reformed faith—gave us a doctrine of justification, culminating in the insistence upon the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the account of the believing sinner, that is one of the most glorious truths to ever be promulgated.  We will have no true revival until this gospel is restored in our Reformed churches and proclaimed to our dying culture!  That said, Rev. Roberts must appreciate the fact that many of the errors he finds in Aquinas’ view of justification can also be found in Luther’s.  Then again, many of the great insights found in Thomas’ commentary on Romans can also be found in Luther’s.  None of us are without error in our teachings, and so we should not be surprised to find errors in some of the great orthodox theologians of the past, even when those errors concern something as important as justification.  What is important in all of this is that our best theologians, people like Augustine, Anselm, Luther, Calvin and, yes, even Aquinas got the absolute essential point right—namely, because of my wickedness, if I am to be saved at all, it must be via sola gratia.  History teaches us that whenever we fail to make clearly the distinction between the proclamation of my righteousness and the process of my becoming righteous, abuses in the churches become inevitable.  The Reformed doctrine of sola fide is the only way to fully and consistently preserve a cardinal doctrine all Christians have intuitively known, and what all of the great theologians of the past have explicitly affirmed—i.e., sola gratia.  If we get into the business of pointing out inconsistencies in anyone’s soteriology, even those who affirm sola gratia, and, on that basis, condemn him as a heretic, we destroy the very doctrine we are trying to defend.  Indeed, Thomas, like all of us, was saved by grace, not by doctrinal precision!  Criticize him as much as you like.  Something tells me Thomas would have welcomed such a critique.  Indeed, Aquinas’ himself said, “If somebody chooses to write against my explanations, that is fine with me.  There is simply no better way to discover truth and to refute error than to defend yourself against those who oppose your position.”[18]  Spoken like a true scholar and a gentleman!  Disagree with him.  Critique him.  But don’t condemn him for saying something he never said, or for affirming doctrines we can also find among the earliest Reformers!

One of the reasons so many Reformational Christians shy away from St. Thomas is because, during the Council of Trent, Thomas’ great Summa was set in the middle of the council and consulted often as Rome gave its conciliar canons and anathemas against the Reformation.  Since then, many lay Evangelicals have understandably wondered how a faithful Protestant could in good conscience seek wisdom from a man whose writings were used to condemn his own faith tradition.  But my fellow Protestant theologians should know better!  Hardly any author is never misunderstood.  This goes double for the theologian.  True, John Tetzel was a Dominican, the same order as Aquinas.  Would Thomas sing one of Tetzel’s jingles?  Or would he wince at the thought that a person could find salvation through the purchase of an indulgence?  True, the Summa was placed in the midst of the Tridentine council.  Would Thomas affirm all of the decrees and canons of the council?  Or would he, who insisted that we are made members “of Christ through grace alone” (Summa Theol. IIIa.62.1), carefully parse out what’s good and bad in Trent’s affirmations and denials—as was done so masterfully by Chemnitz?[19]  Answering such questions goes way above my metaphysical pay grade.  But affirming Thomas as my brother in Christ does not!  Indeed, writing him off as having little value must be dismissed for the insanity that it is!  For while there is plenty to be rejected in his writings, there is so much to be received as reasonable, true, and orthodox!

I will one day be forgot.  So will Rev. Roberts.  Aquinas never will![20]

                [1] The title of this article is shamelessly stolen from a joke often told by Norman Geisler (cf.

                [2] For an overview of such arguments, see Travis James Campbell, “Middle Knowledge: A Reformed Critique,” Westminster Theological Journal 68.1 (Spring 2006): 1-22.

                [3] Dewey Roberts, “Aquinas Is Not A Safe Guide For Protestants: Reading Aquinas with care and caution,” (10-16-2016); last accessed on 10-19-2016; cf. also “Aquinas Not a Safe Guide for Protestants: (Part 2) Why Aquinas is not a theologian you should closely study or follow,” (11-3-2016); last accessed on 11-6-2016.

                [4] For more references from Thomas’ works affirming sola scriptura, see Norman L. Geisler, Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 48-49.  Richard Muller concurs with Geisler on this score, writing, “Indeed, it was the common assumption of the theologians of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries [, including Aquinas,] that Scripture was the materially sufficient ‘source and norm’ for all theological formulation, granting the inspiration and resulting authority of the text.  The language of these thinkers, although not precisely the meaning and application, looks directly toward the Reformation and particularly toward the Protestant orthodox assumption of a positive biblical principium for theological formulation” (Richard Muller, Holy Scripture: The Cognitive Foundation of Theology (Vol. 2 of Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725; 2nd edition; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 45-46).  Anecdotal evidence for the reasonableness, if not truthfulness, of our interpretation of Aquinas is seen in the fact that there were Dominicans at the time of the Reformation who believed tradition was subordinate to Scripture.  One of those was Giacomo Nacchiante, who gave a speech defending sola scriptura at the Council of Trent—and was censored by the council for doing so (cf. Benedict M. Ashley, The Dominicans (Vol. 3 of Religious Order Series; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990), 127).

                [5] Ibid.

                [6] Cf. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The One God: A Commentary on the First Part of St. Thomas’ Theological Summa (trans. Dom Bede Roe; B. Herder Book Company: St. Louis, MO, 1946), 534.

                [7] Cf. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Lectures on the Letter to the Romans (trans. Fabian Larcher; ed. Jeremy Holmes & The Aquinas Center for Theological Renewal; unpublished manuscript), 359-360—henceforth, Romans.

                [8] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (trans. Matthew L. Lamb; ed. Joseph Kenny; Albany, NY: Magi Books, 1966), Chapter 1, Lecture 1—italics added.

                [9] Ibid, Chapter 2, Lecture 3.

                [10] Ibid.

                [11] Thomas Aquinas, Commentaries on St. Paul’s Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (trans. Chrysostom Baer (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2007), 12 (italics in original)—henceforth, Timothy et al.; cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans (Vol. 33 of The Anchor Bible; ed. William Foxwell Albright & David Noel Freedman; New York et al.: Doubleday, 1993), 360.

                [12] Romans, 162-163—italics in original.

                [13] John Calvin, Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote; (accessed September 12, 2016).

                [14] For a balanced treatment of Thomas’ doctrine of justification by faith (which is in stark contrast to both John H. Gerstner, “Aquinas was a Protestant,” Tabletalk, ed. R. C. Sproul and John H. Gerstner, May 1994, 14; and Robert L. Reymond, “John H. Gerstner on Thomas Aquinas as a Protestant,” Westminster Theological Journal 59/1 (1997): 113-121), see Bradley R. Cochran, “Justification in Aquinas,” entry posted January 5, 2012, Theophilogue: Theology, Philosophy, Dialogue,­_1xxx_.pdf (accessed September 12, 2016).

                [15] Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (2nd edition; 2 Vols. in 1; Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 200; quoting Luther’s Works (Vol. 56.442.3; 40 II.24.2-3).

                [16] Ibid, 205.

                [17] Ibid, 210ff.

                [18] Thomas Aquinas On the Perfection of the Christian Life, final section; quoted in Marie-Dominique Chenu, Aquinas and His Role in Theology (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 76.

                [19] Cf. Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent (trans. Fred Kramer; Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1971), 465-663.

                [20] Travis James Campbell (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is a history teacher at Deerfield-Windsor School in Albany, GA, where he lives with his wife and son, serves as a Ruling Elder at Northgate Presbyterian Church, and enjoys reading Scripture and philosophico-theological tomes, experiencing the outdoors (when he gets a chance), and lots and lots of piddling.

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