Friday, June 4, 2021

A Protestant Look at Aquinas


Ryan Reeves offers a two-part look at Thomas Aquinas (part one; part two).  Some background, for context:

Ryan Reeves is Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Dean of the Jacksonville campus.

Gordon–Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS) is an evangelical seminary with its main campus in Hamilton, Massachusetts and three other campuses in Boston, Massachusetts; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Jacksonville, Florida.

Consider this post a further pursuit in my attempt to understand the relationship of Protestants to natural law.  Following are my notes and thoughts from the videos.


There was really no more important philosopher or theologian in the Western Middle Ages than Thomas Aquinas.  Among Protestants, it is fairly well-known that Luther pretty much rejected Aquinas and thought rather low of his theology.  But Reeves says that this is a pretty overplayed point.

It might be overplayed, but it sure is played – to the point where Protestants fight the use of the phrase “natural law” while many are all-the-while in search of it.

Luther had some negative things to say about Aquinas, but he had negative things to say about much of medieval scholasticism – more specifically, on the philosophy of Aristotle.  In any case, within two generations of Luther and Calvin, you find a return to Aristotelian thinking in the rise of what is called Protestant Scholasticism – a return to dialectic and Aristotle after the Reformation.

It was a return to wrestling with questions of faith and reason.  The issue isn’t Aquinas himself, or Aristotle, or scholasticism, but how we appropriate these into our overall theological vocabulary.

Yes, there is a Wikipedia page on Protestant Scholasticism, and it links to a page on Lutheran scholasticism and Reformed scholasticism.  A sampling:

Protestant scholasticism or Protestant orthodoxy was academic theology practiced by Protestant theologians using the scholastic method during the era of Calvinist and Lutheran orthodoxy from the 16th to 18th centuries.

Lutheran scholasticism was a theological method that gradually developed during the era of Lutheran Orthodoxy. Theologians used the neo-Aristotelian form of presentation, already popular in academia, in their writings and lectures. They defined the Lutheran faith and defended it against the polemics of opposing parties.

Reformed scholasticism or Reformed orthodoxy was academic theology practiced by Reformed theologians using the scholastic method during the period of Protestant orthodoxy in the 16th to 18th centuries. While the Reformed often used "scholastic" as a term of derision for their Roman Catholic opponents and the content of their theology, most Reformed theologians during this period can properly be called scholastics with respect to the method of theology, though they also used other methods.

It seems some things are inescapable.  Whatever the Protestant view of Catholicism, it need not make everything that had roots in Catholic thought an error.  If this is the standard, we can throw out all of the Western tradition of the first fifteen hundred years of Christianity.

Returning to Reeves: he presents a chart of a selection of works completed by Thomas, to include: Summa theologica (3500 pages), Summa contra gentiles (400 pages), 85 sermons, 11 expositions of Aristotle, and several other books, letters, etc.  This all by the age of 49.  To this day, his work is being explored.

Which, perhaps, says something about how well Luther might have understood (or not) Thomas in his time, and how reasonable his reactions against Thomas and the Scholastics might, or might not, have been.  Nothing I have read regarding Luther would indicate he was a master of Thomistic thought.  Certainly, Luther had more than a full-time calling in the path for which he is well-known.

Reeves then focusses on the question of faith and reason, noting that it is Aquinas, more than any other, who focusses on and synthesizes these two superficially contradictory subjects.  It is a task that has been necessary since the Enlightenment, but generally ignored.  It has come to the fore in full force today due to a few hundred years of ignoring this necessity.

Aquinas begins with Aristotle’s definition of knowledge: knowledge comes through sensory perceptions; we know things because we experience them.  It isn’t that Aquinas is a pure materialist, it is only that there isn’t some wellspring of knowledge in our head waiting to be plumbed.

I don’t know that this is fully true; it certainly seems to me that something of our culture and tradition is passed onto us through…genes, DNA, whatever.  Ever raise baby chicks without any adult chickens from which these can learn?  When they mature, they act just like chickens.  Something was learned from what was implanted at conception.  Plato’s forms cannot be completely dismissed, I suspect.

Returning to Reeves: Aquinas will balance what is natural and common, known from God’s creation and discoverable through reason with the knowledge that comes through faith. 

This, opposed to those who were very pessimistic about our ability to grasp anything about God other than through faith. Described by Reeves as being “in the Augustinian tradition.”  Our will is broken; it doesn’t matter how much knowledge comes into our head, because we are broken, we will twist that knowledge into untruth until our eyes are opened through faith.  Once you come to faith, the knowledge of God is obvious – doctrines just “leap off the page.” 

The other side was optimistic about what can be achieved through logic – some to an extreme (he identifies Abelard as one such as this).  The issue wasn’t that we are tainted by sin; we are merely tainted by a lack of information, and gaining this information could be achieved through the contents of our own dialectical reasoning.

Aquinas lands somewhere best described by a slogan: Grace perfects Nature.  Reeves suggests that if you get what this slogan actually means, you will get what Aquinas is trying to do in his methodology. 

Aquinas wants to affirm what is natural, what is part of the created order, what is part of who we are as God’s image bearers, and the natural use of our reason and our minds should not be seen in isolation or in opposition to the realities and doctrines of the faith.   He wants to affirm and limit reason; some things can only be revealed.

Aquinas grounds this in the idea that we are made in the image of God – this is in our nature.  There is something in man’s nature that we can all recognize, giving us the ability for thinking, reasoning, etc.  “You don’t have to be a Christian to be a scientist or philosopher,” says Reeves.  I will go one further – we see today many atheists coming to or recognizing truths of Christianity and God’s creation better than many today who profess the Christian faith.  Jordan Peterson, John Vervaeke, and Tom Holland come to mind. 

We are all made in God’s image – believer and non-believer alike.  This hasn’t been lost with the fall – it is only imperfect, fallen.  Grace perfects this fallen nature – it perfects that which we were always intended to be.  Humans – all humans – have the capacity to embrace and discover great things; however, nature on its own, due to sin, is inadequate for a full achievement.  Nature is good but sinful; grace is powerful, but not eradicating of who we are.

We also know that we are made for a purpose, that there are laws of nature we can discover through reason.  But Aquinas is clear that there are limits to this – we can know the preambles, the mysteries are available only thought revelation. 

In the preambles, we can know that someone created this world, that there is something as goodness, justice.  But it takes something from God and the Holy Spirit to know something more about God.  On ethics, Aquinas identifies the natural virtues – virtues all embrace, believer or not.  Temperance (restraint, discipline), fortitude (courage, bravery), wisdom, and justice.

You don’t have to be a Christian to understand and desire these virtues or to abhor violence and want to see an end to evil in the world.  All humans want to seek an end to injustice.  These virtues are natural to us – all humans – because we are made in the image of God.  This is not totally lost due to the fall.  This is a common ground we hold with all people in the world – Christian and non-Christian alike. 

Then Aquinas moves on to grace-inspired virtues: faith, hope, and love.  These come into the Christian through the Christian life.  Of course, many non-Christians will say that they also hold these virtues; Aquinas would say that this human understanding does not capture the Holy Spirit-inspired understanding that surpasses all experience. 

For example, Christ says greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for another.  Aquinas would say that this is not a natural instinct – it is not what non-Christians consider when they consider love.  This type of love is not shared by everybody; it will be considered odious by many.


Reeves gives what appears to me to be a fair representation of Aquinas and his views.  While I don’t recall that he uses the phrase “natural law” in these videos, he has certainly set a foundation from which one can begin to draw such conclusions.

Of course, a stumbling block – perhaps the stumbling block – is how one views the manifestation or expression of God’s will.  I recall something from C.S. Lewis, from The Problem of Pain:

His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible.  You may attribute miracles to him, but not nonsense.

...meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’.

It remains true that all things are possible to God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. …nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.

God willed a universe that is governed by His reason; as He breathed into man, God’s reason is also our reason – albeit imperfect, given our fallen nature.  If viewed through this lens, there is no conflict between the expression of God’s will and reason.  And in this way, perhaps Protestants can more easily walk through the door that leads to Aquinas.

A second stumbling block is the reaction of Luther and other early Protestants to the scholastics.  Well, Luther wasn’t right about everything, and, as described above, within a couple of generations, many Protestant theologians and philosophers returned to the Scholastic tradition.


  1. Where in this made in the image and likeness can we place those who are sociopaths? Where do they lie on the spectrum when the are completely devoid of conscience or care or empathy for others? How is this small subset so lacking in compassion and so self absorbed that the seem to be another species? Where do we place these people who seem to be soulless?
    How and where do they fit?

    1. They choose to be so or they have a deficiency in their make up vis a vis their parents, culture, upbringing, etc. That's the Church's general and rough position. Man's greatest gift is free will after all.

      The notion above about the baby chicks doesn't completely apply to humans, further highlighting man's uniqueness and favored status in Creation. A human baby will not grow up, un-parented and un-cultured, to be a functioning adult human. Even without so basic as physical touch in infancy, the child will emotionally and often physically whither away and experience intense pain and suffering, putting themselves apart from other humans, as we saw in Romania during the last days of the Iron Curtain. It is the so-called "feral child" phenomenon.

      There is a grain or seed of some kind of passed on potential within us, but without nurturing it simply does not grow.

    2. Unknown, my view can be found here:

    3. Dr. Weezil, regarding the applicability of the baby chick example to humans, I agree. Human development is something much more complex than the development of all other creatures (to my knowledge).

      It is to your last sentence that I was pointing. There are things passed on, not gained by experience but gained by being conceived.

  2. I really like Dr. Reeves. Watched his series on Tolkien's books. Those two videos are on my watch list this weekend now.

    One thought about how those who are not born again can still understand virtue or morality or attributes of God. You mention the example of love and how in the Bible there is no greater love than to give up oneself. Because Christianity has saturated our culture, now even many (most) atheists think sacrificing yourself for a loved one or a cause is a high virtue. No culture believed this before Christ, but now it is a common understanding as Christianity has shone its light even on to the non-believer. There are probably still aspects best understood by Christians or maybe on average they live out that virtue more consistently. However it shows the influence that the Bible, Jesus, Christianity has on culture in general. Another plank in thinking through natural law and human reasoning ability.

    1. Tony Stark snapped his finger in Endgame, saving the universe but losing his life; Spock saved the ship in The Wrath of Khan, but lost his life. (The first example a better retelling than the second.) People tear-up when they see these stories.

      BTW, in a manner of speaking and in different ways, each of those two came back to life after death. Also part of the great story.

  3. I was wondering if you had ever heard of Samuel Pufendorf and Gershom Carmichael? They were two Protestant, natural rights academics in the early Enlightenment.

    If you have, I'd be interested to know what you have to say about them.

    1. Pufendorf: yes. Carmichael, no. I have skimmed through the opening sections from the two links you have provided.

      On Pufendorf, I have written here:

      From the opening sections of the two links you provided, and also my earlier work, the basis for the natural rights as developed by these two gentlemen and, generally, in the Enlightenment period, was nominalism: God’s will as opposed to God’s reason (and as I have written before, I see no reason why God would have created a universe that did not conform to His reason, and as we are made in God’s image, we can understand something of His reason).

      This as opposed to a teleologically derived ethic of natural law (a creation with universals, these universals conforming to God’s reason). Which can also be understood as “God’s will,” inasmuch as He created an ordered universe that conformed to His reason and is at least somewhat understandable to man through the reason God breathed into man.

      This is further developed in this post, especially the section covering Luther:

      Finally, it seems to be the case when one goes down the path of natural rights based on will (nominalism), that one ends up with a tremendously codified and detailed legal system – what limits the will of the legislator? Whereas, in a teleologically-derived natural law ethic, the focus is on personal behavior and action. Something higher than, or above, the legislator, is in charge (the universal). The codification of legal restrictions is limited to rights of life and property.

      This is further explored here: