Almost twenty-five years ago, in May 1994, Tabletalk magazine published an issue titled Should Old Aquinas Be Forgot? The various contributors attempted to point out some of the helpful aspects of Thomas Aquinas’ theology while also being honest about his shortcomings. That issue of Tabletalk was a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Most evangelicals had long since forgotten Thomas Aquinas. Among Reformed theologians, the enormous influence of Cornelius Van Til and others had led to a conscious movement away from the kind of thinking exemplified by Thomas. John Calvin and the other early Reformed theologians, it was said, had made a radical departure from Thomas. Those who wanted to be faithful to the Reformation should do the same. For decades, Dr. R.C. Sproul was one of a small number of evangelical and Reformed theologians arguing that this was a mistake and advocating a critical appreciation of Thomas Aquinas instead.
It is interesting, therefore, to observe what has happened since the publication of that issue of Tabletalk in 1994. The last few decades have witnessed a resurgence of interest in historical theology. There has been a tidal wave of research into the original sources of the late Middle Ages, the Reformation, and the post-Reformation era. Numerous works that had been available for centuries only in Latin have now been translated, and more works are in the process of being translated. With these early works having been made more readily available, Reformed theologians, pastors, and laymen have been able to read them for themselves. One of the things that has begun to capture the attention of those who carefully read these works is the way in which they contradict the commonly received narrative.
One element of the received narrative that has begun to come under more and more scrutiny is the idea of a wholesale rejection of Thomas by the Reformers and the post-Reformation theologians. It turns out, as Dr. Sproul long argued, that many of these early Reformed theologians critically appropriated elements of Thomas’ thought. Numerous articles have appeared in recent years looking at the appropriation of Thomas by figures such as Martin Bucer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Jerome Zanchi, John Owen, Francis Turretin, and others. As more and more scholars are returning to the sources and reading not only the early Reformed theologians but also Thomas himself, it is becoming clear that the received narrative is inaccurate. The teaching of the early Reformed theologians as well as that of Thomas Aquinas has been misunderstood and misrepresented.
Today, an entire generation of young Reformed scholars trained during this resurgence of interest in historical theology is gradually correcting the narrative. The truth about what Thomas Aquinas actually taught on many subjects is better understood. The truth about which elements of Thomas’ teaching Reformed theologians appropriated, which they rejected, and why they were appropriated or rejected is becoming clearer. There is much more work to be done, but thankfully, at this point, many misconceptions have already been set aside.