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Aquinas for Adventists: A Primer on Faith and Reason

I’m going to make a suggestion that will probably sound a bit strange to many reading this—Adventists (former and present, along with their friends) living in the 21st century. In light of the challenges of secularism, post-modernism, evolution, etc. (the list goes on and on) to our community, I believe revisiting, or perhaps visiting for the first time, the thought of Thomas Aquinas would prove to be instructive and beneficial. I believe Aquinas models, as well provides, a helpful framework to help us deal with the many thorny questions that arise from trying to understand the relationship between faith and reason.

The medieval ages are a mystery to many people—especially Protestants. We talk a lot about the early church, and then skip a thousand or so years to the Reformation. What lies between is discounted as a period of spiritual and intellectual darkness. This is an erroneous assumption and we pass over much wisdom in making it.

The pressing intellectual issue of Aquinas’ time was what to do with the writings of Aristotle, which had been discovered by the Latin West through contact with the Muslims in Spain. At this point, theology and philosophy in the West was largely Augustinian (a blend of Platonism, Stoicism, and the Bible). Intellectuals and Christian theologians did not know what to do with the Aristotelian framework, which was more empirical, and seemed to be more comprehensive and have much more explanatory power in explaining the physical world, as well as how to live life, i.e. ethics, all without referencing God. Furthermore, some of Aristotle’s claims (the earth is eternal, virtue is attained though habit and not given to us, etc.) seemed to be in direct contradiction to Christian faith as it was understood.

What should the church do with this “pagan” wisdom?

There were three basic reactions to the study and teaching Aristotle. One group thought that Aristotle was completely wrong about everything. There were even sermons preached on the errors and evils of Aristotle! His writings were at one point formally condemned by the church and forbidden to be taught at the main Christian university in the west—the University of Paris.

Another group, later know as “the radical Aristotelians”, wholeheartedly accepted everything Aristotle said, including suppositions that were in clear contradiction with the claims of Christian theology, as higher and better truth(s).

Yet another group advocated a position later called “the doctrine of double truth”. According to its proponents, there are some things that are true because they can be “demonstrated”, i.e. Aristotelian logic and observation, and other things that are true because they are in the Bible, and that there is no problem with this. (Think of Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA.)

Let’s call these reactions ones of rejection, reception, or relativism. The fascinating fact about Aquinas was his refusal to follow any one of these intuitive positions. He carved out a distinctive fourth approach.

I won’t get into the specifics of how he does this here. (His body of work is immense and he has something to say about almost anything!) Very generally speaking, however, Aquinas became a careful reader of and commentator on Aristotle. He affirmed much of what Aristotle said, showing the greatest respect, and interpreting him in ways that brought as much harmony as possible between Aristotle’s position and that of Christian faith. Where the difference is irreconcilable, sometimes Aquinas respectfully departs from Aristotle, acknowledging his limitations and shortcomings. At other times, however, he defends Aristotle, and argues against a certain interpretation of Scripture or ecclesiastical authority.

Although unappreciated in his time (his writings were initially condemned by the church as being too Aristotelian), Aquinas’ writings have withstood the test of time and have gone on to shape the church that followed him.

What allowed Aquinas to respond this way to Aristotle? The reason goes beyond personality and philosophical chutzpah; it is theological–it is his belief that God is the creator of all things.

The following excerpt(s), from his book Summa Contra Gentiles (Book I, Chapter 7), illuminates his assumptions (the emphases are mine):

Now, although the truth of the Christian faith which we have discussed surpasses the capacity of the reason, nevertheless that truth that the human reason is naturally endowed to know cannot be opposed to the truth of the Christian faith.

[T]he knowledge of the principles that are known to us naturally has been implanted in us by God, for God is the Author of our nature. These principles, therefore, are contained by the divine Wisdom [i.e., the Bible]. Hence, whatever is opposed to them is opposed to divine Wisdom, and, therefore, cannot come from God. That which we hold by faith as divinely revealed, therefore, cannot be contrary to our natural knowledge.

[W]hatever arguments are brought forward against the doctrines of faith are conclusions incorrectly derived from the first and self-evident principles imbedded in nature. Such conclusions do not have the force of demonstration; they are arguments that are either probable or sophistical. And so, there exists the possibility to answer them.

Now, I should be clear, as I’m sure I will be misunderstood by some as advocating a wholesale adoption of Thomism; I’m not. I believe Aquinas’ thought in our day–whether it be about God, human beings, the physical world, or ethics–needs to be engaged in the same way he engaged Aristotle in his own, respectfully and critically.

But, more specifically, on the points above, and as a Protestant who, in some ways, has taken the “postmodern” turn, I find myself surprisingly in agreement with Aquinas. Much of what he says seems implicit to me from the Biblical ideas(s) that there is one creator of everything and, hence, one ultimate source of truth, and that humans are created by God and in his/her image.

One common theological criticism of Aquinas, and Thomism in general, is his seeming lack of concern for the cognitive damages of sin. (Aquinas seems to think that the negative effects of sin on humans are primarily volitional.) Protestants, following Calvin, want to attribute total depravity to human beings. I think there’s something to the point that sin impacts more than the direction and strength of our wills, but would argue that, if total depravity cannot mean the annihilation of God’s image in humans; this is clearly false. In fact, for Calvin, the “total” in total depravity did not refer to the loss of all ability, as commonly and mistakenly thought, but to the diminishing impact of sin on every capacity.

In other words, after the Fall, reason still works.

In our day, we, as the believers in every age have, face the challenge of living out and communicating our faith in a wider, “unbelieving” culture. Sure, the precise issues up for debate are different; however, replace every instance of “Aristotle” above with “Darwin” or “post-modernism” or “Muslims” or even “fundamentalism” and you’ll see how closely Aquinas’ situation parallels our own. It is tempting to take the easy way(s) out–it’s easy to reject any new and foreign idea as patently false. Likewise, it’s easy to uncritically accept any new intellectual trend as God’s truth. Lastly, there is always the alluring path of relativism—everybody is right! The more fruitful (and, I should add, difficult and time consuming) via media is the one that Aquinas models for us–one of critical engagement and rapprochement. In other words, trying our best to truly understand the ideas we encounter, we ought to bring them into open-minded dialogue with the sacred truths and experience with which we have been entrusted. We should do this with the faith that, as Arthur Holmes puts it, “All truth is God’s truth.”


Zane Yi studies and teaches philosophy at Fordham University in New York.

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