Christian History Home > 2002 > Issue 73 > Thomas Aquinas: Christian History Interview - He's Our Man
Thomas Aquinas: Christian History Interview - He's Our Man
Evangelicals can embrace a rich inheritance from Aquinas.
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In a 1974 Christianity Today article marking the 700th anniversary of Aquinas's death, author Ronald Nash said some nice things about the deceased but ultimately judged his system of thought "unsuitable for a biblically centered Christian philosophy" and "beyond any hope of salvage." Norman Geisler disagreed with that assessment then, and he disagrees with it now. We asked Dr. Geisler, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and author of Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal (Baker, 1991), for his evaluation of the Angelic Doctor.
You've studied Aquinas for 45 years now. What makes him so appealing?
He's insightful, he's incisive, he's comprehensive, he's systematic, he's biblical, he's devout, and he's successful. By successful, I mean, first, how many other books are still being read 700 years later? Second, he single-handedly withstood the onslaught of intellectual Islam in the thirteenth century. He reversed the course of history.
Why isn't Aquinas more popular with evangelicals?
Evangelicals have largely misinterpreted Aquinas, and they have placed on him views that he did not hold. Many people are concerned that he separated faith and reason, denied depravity (especially the effects of sin on the human mind), and stood for everything that "Roman Catholic" means to Protestants today. Let me take those concerns one by one.
Francis Schaeffer criticized Aquinas for giving rise to modern humanism and atheism by separating faith and reason. Aquinas would do cartwheels in his casket if he heard that!
He believed in the integration of faith and reason, not the separation. He made a distinction but no disjunction. Aquinas said that faith brings the highest kind of certainty and that reason, weak and fallen, cannot attain Christian faith.
Still, Aquinas held human reason in such high regard that some accuse him of denying depravity. He did not. He believed in original sin, he believed in the effects of sin on the mind, and he believed that the mind was so depraved that it could not know supernatural truths. God's revealed truths could be accepted only by faith.
And then there's the concern that Aquinas was a Roman Catholic, and we Protestants disagree with Catholicism at key points. In truth, most Protestants today could have accepted what the Roman Catholic church taught up to the time of the Reformation.
Even Martin Luther and John Calvin believed that the Roman Catholic church, up to the Council of Trent, was basically orthodox—a true church with sound fundamental doctrines as well as significant error.
Many of the Catholic beliefs that concern Protestants most were not declared dogma until long after Aquinas. For example, Aquinas denied the immaculate conception of Mary, and it was not declared dogma until 1854. Aquinas never believed in the bodily assumption of Mary, which was defined in 1950. Aquinas didn't believe in the infallibility of the pope. That was not pronounced until 1870—600 years after Aquinas.
On the other hand, Aquinas held many beliefs associated with the Reformation. He upheld a version of sola scriptura. He believed in salvation by grace through faith—just look at his commentary on Ephesians 2:8-9.
John Gerstner, the late Calvinist theologian, went so far as to claim that Aquinas was basically a Protestant.
How can we avoid the misconceptions and find the real Aquinas?
Read him! Quotes and excerpts in other people's books don't count, because many of his critics have taken him out of context. Get it from the horse's mouth, or should I say the dumb ox's mouth.
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