Aquinas kerfuffles: missing the point

St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico, San Marco Priory, Florence

As you may know, I work for the Davenant Institute, teaching courses on Christian History online — at present, “Streams in the Desert: The Christian Wisdom of the Desert Fathers”, and in January I’ll start “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy”. Not exactly straight-up Thomism, is it?

Well, I’ll have you know that we at the Davenant Institute are accused of all being Thomists and that if you take one of our courses, you’ll be taught the theology of St Thomas Aquinas. And, not only that, if you listen to what we have to say in Ad Fontes or Davenant blogs or Davenant podcasts or Davenant books, you’ll find your way into Thomism, which is itself a path to destruction — for you and your church.

I’m not joking that people say this.

Now, it’s not untrue that many people at the Davenant Institute have an appreciation for St Thomas Aquinas. If you listen to, say, the Pilgrim Faith podcast with Joe Minich and Dale Stenberg, you will find at times that they refer to what Aquinas has to say on a subject when it’s relevant. (It’s a great podcast, and you don’t need to be a Thomist to like it.)

But the simple fact is that many of us, like me, aren’t actually Thomists, and that calling everyone else a Thomist or thinking that imbibing the teaching of Thomas Aquinas is dangerous is not to know what exactly my colleagues are up to. So, first: Why am I not a Thomist? Second: What are they actually up to? A third point will be: Is Aquinas actually dangerous in the first place?

Why am I not a Thomist?

Simply put: I don’t know the thinking of St Thomas Aquinas well enough to be certain if someday I would be or not. With my current state of knowledge, I can safely say that I’m not against St Thomas Aquinas, but I’m also not deep enough into his teaching to know how much I agree with/disagree with.

There’s a second one, though. Sometimes I think I might be a Palamite, and I’ve been told that the Palamite essences/energies distinction, although it does not contradict the Greek Fathers on divine simplicity, is incompatible with a Thomist view of divine simplicity. Not having read enough Thomas Aquinas, I can’t see if this is true.

Before my next point, let me say that I think it’s beautiful that within the historic confessions of the Protestant movement, we have room for Thomists and Palamites. There’s nothing in the 39 Articles that prevents me from holding to a Palamite position on divine simplicity; and I’m allowed to change my mind if prayerful reason leads me in a different direction. That’s pretty cool.

What are the Davenant bros actually up to?

What about my colleagues, then. Are they Thomists? I can’t speak for them; one of them has told me that he is. One of them, the Davenant Institute’s VP Colin Redemer, said in an episode of the Ad Fontes podcast that he wouldn’t use that word to describe himself because, while he finds Aquinas useful for a lot of important stuff, there are other places where the rest of the tradition, or his own use of God-given reason, (or something like that) comes into play against Thomas. Colin is a big fan of Peter Martyr Vermigli, for instance — Vermigli, if you are curious, used the scholastic method and came to certain conclusions in agreement with a lot of Scholastics but, as a Reformed Protestant, was unafraid to critique their errors.

It is, I would argue, the Peter Martyr approach that my colleagues are actually up to. Yes, they may write dense articles about divine simplicity drawing deeply from the well of St Thomas Aquinas and the tradition surrounding him (such as this good one by Ryan Hurd for Credo magazine). But if you look at their other work, like, say, a series of YouTube videos with Fred Sanders about the Reformed theologian Franciscus Junius’ Trinitarian theology (also by said Ryan Hurd).

I would venture to say the following: Much, if not most, of what St Thomas Aquinas wrote is compatible with the confessions of historic Protestantism. Where his work is incompatible with the confessions or deficient for one reason or another, my colleagues are not afraid to critique him. Hey — that sounds like any Christian’s wise approach to any theologian. Huh. Fancy that.

Is Aquinas dangerous?

Obviously, my answer is no. Let me unpack something here, though. The first time I heard anyone saying that reading or teaching St Thomas Aquinas is dangerous was in a video by (you guessed it) James White. In said video, White explicitly says that the reason why Aquinas is dangerous is because he’s the start of a slippery slope into Roman Catholicism for many people.

Let’s assume White is right about many people converting to Rome with St Thomas as part of the cause.

The real “problem” or “danger” lies not with Thomas Aquinas but with insufficient spiritual formation and catechesis. Learning the scholastic method can make you better at thinking clearly and carefully and precisely about anything, the doctrine of God included. If, however, you’ve never been taught fully and properly and well the distinctives of your own tradition, it will be hard for your Protestantism to stand up against the logic of Aquinas on those points where he and the Protestant tradition clash.

White, being a Baptist, is concerned with Baptists who join the Roman Church, naturally enough. But if justification by faith alone, sola scriptura, other Reformation slogans, and a certain ecclesiology and soteriology that work together to make you reject paedobaptism are what defines you as a Baptist, you need to know the scriptural and logical reasons your own tradition affirms those before rejecting them. And, if you take Aquinas and his method seriously, you need to steel man them — that is, see the strongest version of the credobaptist position — before you reject them.

I don’t have a lot of Baptist friends these days, but one of them is a pastor in the American South who loves St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. He says things like, “Reading Augustine makes my heart sing!” But also, if you ask him questions about Baptist-specific things, he knows his stuff and is very eager to talk about it. So knowing Aquinas and deepening your faith in the God Who Saves is not necessarily antithetical to being a Baptist.

And if, intrinsically, studying Aquinas were a real, absolute danger to staying Baptist, I’d place the problem with Baptists, not Aquinas.


Athanasius and the Fatherhood of God

Yesterday was Father’s Day, so I made sure to have a video chat with my Dad and to watch Cars 2 during a thunderstorm with my kids. And crack open a cold one in the evening while preparing tonight’s lecture about Wycliffe and suchlike. I also thought a bit about God as Father.

Most of us think of God as Father in three ways:

  1. Creator of everything. Thus, Father of all humans by analogy.
  2. Adopter of redeemed humans. Thus, Father of some humans by divine will.
  3. Father of the God Word, God the Son, Jesus the Christ. Thus, Father by his own nature.

Actually, most people today, no matter how orthodox their idea of the Trinity, probably rarely think of number 3. St Athanasius (sign up for my Athanasius course today!) did, and when I encountered his ideas early on in my journey into the Fathers, they cemented for me two facts:

  1. The Trinity must be true.
  2. It good and healthy to speak of God as Father, despite the failings of human fathers.

It’s point number 1 that came home to me time and again. Basically, if we take seriously the Bible as being revelatory of God’s nature, then biblical names mean something. The names the Bible uses of God reveal to us something of His nature. Thus, if a biblical name for God is “Father”, we need to take that seriously. The name “Father”, rather than something we came up with like, say “unbegotten”, is revelatory of the divine nature. It means that God has always existed as Father, according to St Athanasius. And therefore, there has always been a Son from eternity.

St Athanasius nuances this with the analogy from human fathers, an analogy that some felt divided Father and Son so that the Son could not be fully God. According to St Athanasius, sons have all the same essential and natural attributes as their fathers. I am a human by nature; so are my sons. Whatever is necessary to my humanity is necessary to theirs — this is in virtue of my having begotten them.

Likewise in the Godhead. Anything that can be predicated of the Father — eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, immortal — can be predicated of the Son. Grasp this with the biblical teaching of God being only one, with the doctrine of divine simplicity, and you are headed straight for the Trinity.

Point number 2 is partly related to this. We need to be able to speak of God as Father because that’s how the Bible does. And biblical names matter. By speaking of God as Father, Athanasius was able to see how Father and Son are homoousios.

Furthermore, in the life-and-worldview of the ancient Christians, influenced by both Scripture and Plato, the reality of human fathers failing did not bear on God the Father at all. God, as Father in all three ways listed above, is the perfect Father, of whom every human father is an imperfect image. Think of the absolute best Dad, and then multiply him by infinity — then you have a poor analogy for the perfect divine Father, God the Creator, and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And once we embrace these biblical names and the transcendent realities they point us toward, there is no fear of uttering the Scriptural names of the Three Persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sign up for my Athanasius course today!