Cancel

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.

The early Reformed theologians who critically appropriated the teaching of Thomas Aquinas were not closet Roman Catholics, and they were not sympathetic to Roman Catholicism.

So, should old Aquinas be forgotten? No. As the contributors to Tabletalk back in 1994 argued, there is much we can learn from Thomas as well as from other pre-Reformation theologians. The theologians of the Reformation learned from him. His discussion of natural theology and natural law, his writings on analogical language about God, his doctrine of the Trinity, and his discussion of the attributes of God provided much food for thought during the era of Reformed orthodoxy. Much of what he said on these subjects was incorporated into the theological systems of the Reformation. The Reformed theologians disagreed with and rejected his doctrine of justification. They also disagreed with much of his sacramental theology, including his doctrine of transubstantiation, but Reformed theologians disagreed also with Martin Luther’s doctrine of the Eucharist without discarding everything Luther wrote.

Much of recent American Reformed theology has been caught up for some time in a distorted form of biblicism that has fallen into the trap of trying to reinvent the theological wheel in areas where doing so is fraught with danger—in particular, the doctrine of the divine attributes and the doctrine of the Trinity. More often than should be the case, important aspects of these essential doctrines of the Christian faith have been seriously misunderstood and then, on the basis of such misunderstanding, rejected or revised, with disastrous consequences. One way in which these misunderstandings could have been avoided would have been to grapple with the way these doctrines were defined and defended by the greatest theologians of the past, theologians such as Augustine, Gregory of Nazianzus, and yes, even Thomas Aquinas.

The early Reformed theologians who critically appropriated the teaching of Thomas Aquinas were not closet Roman Catholics, and they were not sympathetic to Roman Catholicism. If anyone knew the dangers of Roman Catholic theology, it was the earliest generations of Reformed theologians. Those Reformed theologians who share this desire to critically appropriate Thomas today are also not trying to return us to a Roman Catholic way of thinking. They are trying to return us to the classical Reformed way of thinking. To study Thomas carefully and wrestle with his thinking is not to become a new Robert Bellarmine. It is to become a new Francis Turretin.