Thomistic Irony

learningtoflyI wanted to offer some comments on this post,

Aquinas or Van Til? Testimony of a campus minister

It was written in response to a talk that Scott Oliphint gave at the ReformedCon 2016 conference called Reformed or Romanist? Dr. Oliphint reviewed and critiqued a book entitled Evangelical Exodus, a collection of testimonies by former students and faculty from Southern Evangelical Seminary who had apostasized to the Roman Catholic Church. As Dr. Oliphint points out in his lecture, according to their testimony, those individuals went to Roman due in part to their exposure to Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy.

Thomism is the backbone philosophy behind Roman Catholicism and classic apologetics, and because it is the philosophical methodology taught at SES, Dr. Oliphint’s talk obviously ruffled some feathers. The author of this article took umbrage with Dr. Oliphint’s lecture, and so he in turn attempts to alleviate his criticisms by explaining why classical Thomism is more robust an apologetic methodology than presuppositionalism. However, in doing so, he offers up some head scratching irony, at least in my opinion.

He begins by telling us how he held to presuppositionalism for nearly 15 years after having read Van Til who he says gave him the certainty he longed for; but then he moved to classical apologetics.

Those remarks makes me wonder about his overall theology. Presuppositionalism is derived from a Calvinistic soteriology. In other words, when the presuppositionalist engages the lost person with the Gospel, the revelation of Scripture informs him of specific anthropological descriptions of the person with whom he is speaking. The Bible tells us that all men are separated from God and blinded in their sins. Hence, what is needed in the conversation is a proclamation of the Gospel message that will bring that person to a saving knowledge of Christ.  For the presuppositionalist, answering apologetic objections is a secondary matter in the overall encounter with a lost person.

I can only assume he still maintains a biblical understanding of man’s sin nature and the noetic effects of the fall, but I find that hard to believe given that he writes, “The classical method, however, is rooted in realism and the reliability of sense-perception, and is therefore the better path.” and “Rather, because sense-perception is reliable, I can have common ground with unbelievers, and show them the evidence for Christianity in a robust, yet simple way.”

Like all classicists, he naively places a lot of faith in the “sense-perception” of unbelievers. If he held to presuppositionalism for 15 years, I would think he understood what Van Til taught about unbelievers and the so-called reliability of their “sense-perception.” While it is true that they may perceive things with their senses, that doesn’t mean their perception is reliable. God intends for mankind to perceive reality according to the manner in which He created it. Scripture declares, however, that unbelievers suppress that truth in unrighteousness. Put another way, they intentionally deny or explain away the reliability of their perception, because they hate God and want nothing to do with Him.

I was also curious about his comparison of Van Til’s apologetics to that of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. He writes,

…presuppositionalism was my meat and potatoes for nearly a decade and a half, ever since reading Cornelius Van Til. Van Til gave me the certainty I longed for. That is, Hume’s radical skepticism was solved by the Kantian notion of transcendentals, but with a different spin: it is the Triune God and Holy Scripture which are the necessary preconditions of knowledge.

He then goes on to conclude why Thomism is a better apologetic method by stating,

I can demonstrate important truths, like the existence of God i.e. Aquinas’ 5 Ways, and the historical reliability of Scripture without resorting to lengthy discussions about Hume’s problem of induction, Kantian transcendentalism and resultant idealism, and the supposed epistemological certainty that presuppositionalism attempts to offer (a form of realism, it seems, based upon presupposing the ontological Trinity and the Bible as the Word of God). 

Now it is important to distinguish what Kant meant by the word “transcendentals,” because it is not the same thing Van Til meant.

I would encourage folks to pick up John Frame’s massive work, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, so as to get firm overview of the development of general philosophy and all the accompanying terms, as well as how philosophy interacts with biblical theology. Frame has an extended discussion on Kant’s philosophical worldview that is insightful.

Without getting bogged down in a lot of the philosophical gobbledygook, Kant’s predecessors, like David Hume, believed philosophy was essentially an exploration of discovery: a person started at one philosophical landmark and followed a trail to the next.  The starting point was self-evident axioms (rationalism) or sense experience (empiricism). The method was to follow the axioms or the sense data wherever they seemed to lead the person, [See Frame, 254].

Considering what I have learned from the classic apologists I have interacted with for a while now, that is exactly how they describe their apologetic methodology. They affirm what they call “first principles” or “self-evident” truths regarding reality, and then using Aristotelian philosophy and the five proofs of Thomism, build a cumulative case for the existence of God and the reliability of the Christian faith.

Coming back to Immanuel Kant, he believed that our most basic knowledge comes about not by the world’s impressing it on the mind (following the “self-evident” landmarks and building a case), but by the mind’s imposing various concepts on the raw data given to it by the world, [see Frame, 256]. Put simply, for Kant, in order to understand the nature of reality, a person must examine the reasoning process that governs the nature of experience. Philosophical knowledge begins with men who already know because they are men with minds, and how it is they interpret the world with that knowledge.

Van Til, on the other hand, speaks of transcendentals and the need to confront the reasoning process that men employ when interpreting the world, but he is building his apologetic approach from the revelation of Scripture.

The Bible provides us with specific descriptions of fallen man’s nature and reasoning abilities, which, according to the Bible, is hostile to God, Romans 8:7. They want nothing to do with their creator. So what may be considered “self-evident” truths for the classical apologist is not at all “self-evident” for a hostile person in spiritual rebellion against his creator. His reasoning will bring an entirely different set of interpretations to those so-called “self-evident” truths and he will draw entirely different conclusions about them.

Van Til recognized the spiritual dimension to man’s fallen reasoning and his interaction within the world where God, his Creator, has placed him. Because man, according to Scripture, hates God, he will not reason about that world in the way God expects him to do. Van Til zeroes in upon that inconsistent disconnect between the way the fallen man wrongly reasons about the world in which he lives and challenges him with the Gospel. Man’s reasoning problem is his spiritual separation from his Creator. When Christ saves a person, that individual is now clothed, as it were, and in his right mind, Mark 5:15.

Having stated all of that, those points were not the most glaring examples of irony. Keep in mind that this post was written as a brief rebuttal to a talk Scott Oliphint gave in which he suggested that Thomistic philosophy was turning a number of SES graduates into Roman Catholics.

In his effort to respond to Oliphint, the author highlights a book he says is recommended by SES faculty entitled The Last Superstition: A Refutation of New Atheism, by a guy named Edward Feser. The book allegedly demonstrates the intellectual ability Thomism has in trouncing the foggy thinking of new atheism, because Thomism, based upon Aristotle’s four causes, explains reality much better than what Kantian transcendentalism can.

The irony: Feser is a Roman Catholic!

I hope we can appreciate the humor here, because it is as obvious as the pope’s funny hat.

funnyhatIn fact, if you go to Feser’s Wiki page, it tells how he was an atheist for about a decade before his reading of Aristotle — and get this, THOMAS AQUINAS — led him back to the Catholic Church.  A book written by a Roman Catholic, explaining how he read Thomas Aquinas’s apologetic philosophy that led him back to the arms of Rome, is recommend by the faculty of SES for the students to read. Hello?

In a podcast put out by the folks at SES, it was suggested that it may be a good thing to shore up their teaching on the Reformers by exposing the students to them in class. That, I would agree, would be a fabulous idea. The problem, however, is that I can never see that happening as long as Norman Geisler is alive; I don’t believe he would allow it if he has any say in the matter.

However, if that does happen, may I suggest that the administrators at SES secure some solid lecturers on the subject and require all the student body to hear from them, rather than assigning an associate professor to teach a few elective classes on a general overview of the Reformation. There are a number of excellent teachers the students would benefit from immensely, like Stephen Nichols at Ligonier Ministries, or Sinclair Ferguson, or Carl Trueman, or even, *gasp,* James White, who I know would be absolutely elated to come and teach. Pulling together classes like that would go a long way in inoculating the kids from the bitter waters of the Tiber.

Advertisements

14 thoughts on “Thomistic Irony

  1. Also see https://www.amazon.com/Rediscovering-Reformed-Theological-University-Religion/dp/0802863132

    More evidence that Calvin and the early Reformers held to Natural Theology and Natural Law.

    And the Canons of Dordt: “There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior”

    Note the use of the “glimmerings of natural light whereby [man] retains some knowledge of God.”

  2. I’m curious to know: would the author of “Thomistic Irony” be capable of giving a definition of what a human nature is? Second, can he justify this definition with a passage from scripture?

    In addition, just because someone study’s X and arrives at belief Y does not mean that X is the cause of belief Y. This is a logically fallacy known as a non-Sequitur; the conclusion does not follow from the premise. Indeed, there were many Reformed theologians that have left their covenantal theology for Roman Catholicism, should we suppose that covenantal or reformed theology is suspect. Secondly, if that logic were sound, then Christians who convert to atheism after reading the Old Testament should make reading the OT suspect and pastors should remove the first half of the canon of scripture and only preach out of the NT.

    There is something wrong with your last statement. I think you are being hypocritical. Many Christian institutions like to talk about the failings of opposing world-views i.e., evolution, atheism, and other non-Christian religions, but if I follow your logic about who should teach subjects in a university, then Christian institutions can’t teach effectively on anything other than Christianity. Courses offered at Christian institutions that talk about evolution, atheism, hinduism, buddhism, or any other counter-Christian belief/theory are suspect unless the proponents of those theories are on campus to teach the course. Not only is this impossible to fulfill on a practical level, it makes your theory of education completely in line with the Catholic view of authority. Lastly, you have just undermined your entire blog post since you’re a non-Thomist criticizing the views of evangelical Thomists.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

  3. Daniel Writes,
    I’m curious to know: would the author of “Thomistic Irony” be capable of giving a definition of what a human nature is? Second, can he justify this definition with a passage from scripture?

    Hey Daniel, thanks for stopping by. I’m the author, Fred. You can read all about me on my ABOUT page, https://hipandthigh.wordpress.com/about/

    If you are asking for a formal definition with just a couple of sentences or a paragraph, I suppose I could, but it would be lengthier and perhaps miss some of what the whole of Scripture teaches about man. As relating to the topic of apologetics directly, I think it is best to draw from what the Bible reveals to us about mankind and our nature in order to move forward in evangelizing them.
    Some passages to consider,

    We know that the first couple was directly created by God – Genesis 1 and 2
    That the original couple had a special, unique relationship with their Creator – Genesis 2
    That God specifically stated that if Adam ate of the fruit he would die – Genesis 2:16,17
    That Adam did eat and what God stated happened – Genesis 3
    That the relationship man had with God was changed at that moment and it was spread to all his progeny, or ALL men and women who ever lived – Genesis 3

    That that change resulted in:
    All men and women facing death and eventually dying – Romans 5:12ff.
    All mankind being place under God’s wrath – Ephesians 2:1-3
    All men being in bondage to the lies of the devil – Ephesians 2:1-3
    Spiritually cut off from God – Colossians 2:13
    In bondage to their sin nature – Romans 6:20, Titus 3:3
    Unable to obey the law of God – Romans 8:7,8
    A mind that is in bondage to the flesh and sin – Romans 8:7,8, 1 Corinthians 2:14, Ephesians 4:17-19
    They have hearts that the Bible says manifests evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, coveting, pride, foolishness, hating God, thanklessness, and a host of sin that impacts their reasoning abilities, Romans 3:9-12, Mark 7:21-23.

    All men must have a spiritual renewal, or what the Bible calls regeneration, before they come to Christ in faith, John 3:5-7, 1 Corinthians 2:14, John 6:44, Ephesians 2:8-10.

    Moving along,
    In addition, just because someone study’s X and arrives at belief Y does not mean that X is the cause of belief Y. This is a logically fallacy known as a non-Sequitur;

    I understand what you are saying, but in this case, Thomism is the official theology of the Roman Catholic Church. Most of the major philosophers and writers on Thomism are Catholics, like that Ed Feser book I noted. It would be irresponsibly naive to claim there isn’t any important connection with studying Thomism and folks who are going Catholic.

    You mention Reformed folks who went Catholic, but can you provide some examples of individuals who were solidly Reformed who abandoned the faith due in part to covenantalism? I can’t think of any. I maybe can think of a few who left the Reformed faith, one off the top of my head, but there were other factors in play that drew him away from the faith, most specifically, he wasn’t saved. With the situation at SES, the authors of that book directly state there was a close connection between the philosophy they were being taught and their apostasy. That can’t be overlooked.

    Continuing,
    Secondly, if that logic were sound, then Christians who convert to atheism after reading the Old Testament should make reading the OT suspect and pastors should remove the first half of the canon of scripture and only preach out of the NT.

    I don’t know of any solid, Bible-believing Christians who read the OT and converted to atheism. I think your example is a big stretch and rather desperate. I know a ton of people who were raised in church who left the faith upon leaving for college, but that is because the churches failed to teach them God’s Word and give them the true gospel. They entertained goats for 4 years in junior high and high school with rock shows, fun and games, pizza, and lame movies like God is Not Dead. BTW, I wrote about why I think youth are leaving churches here, https://hipandthigh.wordpress.com/2015/05/26/the-real-reasons-why-youth-are-leaving-church/

    Courses offered at Christian institutions that talk about evolution, atheism, hinduism, buddhism, or any other counter-Christian belief/theory are suspect unless the proponents of those theories are on campus to teach the course. Not only is this impossible to fulfill on a practical level, it makes your theory of education completely in line with the Catholic view of authority.

    I’ll be blunt. I personally do not believe the faculty at SES would honestly provide a balanced and fair treatment of Calvinism and Reformed thinking. Given the history of Norman Geisler’s imbalance and inaccuracies when responding to James White’s The Potter’s Freedom, I believe that same spirit would be exposed to the students.

    This is not like having only atheists or only Muslims talking about their particular faith, as it were. That is an absurd example. I would hope, that after what I read of Bridges in his response article to Oliphint, that being, SES prides itself in academic freedom and learning the “truth” from various forms of eclectic beliefs, that the seminary would be open to having solid Reformers visit and lecture. If SES is willing to entertain the likes of NT Wright, certainly they can find in themselves to invite James White to lecture for a couple of weeks for special classes on church history pertaining to Calvinism and Reformed theology.

  4. Chris writes,
    Thanks for reading and commenting on my post. It would be more informative for you to read my longer post here https://wordpress.com/stats/insights/chrismvanallsburg.wordpress.com

    Your welcome. Thanks for stopping by. By the way, you linked to your stats page. I can’t get the link to open up.

    moving along, you write,
    John Calvin believed in Natural Law and Natural Theology. In order to do that, you need to be an epistemic realist, like Aquinas was.

    How are you defining natural law and theology? If you are defining it as philosophically reflecting on the existence and nature of God independent of divine revelation, or thoughts about God developed through discursive reason apart from the Bible, Calvin did not teach such things.

    If you read Calvin’s Institutes and his commentary on Romans, he believed men had a sensus divinitatis or an immediate intuitive understanding of the existence and majesty of their creator. See D.G. Dunbar’s discussion in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology.

    Calvin wrote in the 3rd chapter of his institutes, “To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted bin all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty.” He goes on to explain how there are no nations anywhere who live without any knowledge of who their creator is and the fact that idolatry is prevalent everywhere proves men are religious at heart, but their depravity impacts their reasoning about God.

    If that is how Aquinas and you are defining natural theology, I would affirm that, because it is what the Bible teaches. It is my understanding it is NOT what Aquinas taught, or what is currently taught at SES. Am I right or wrong on that assessment? I get that from my interactions with Adam Tucker who currently works at SES. See the article exchange I had with him here, https://hipandthigh.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/what-roman-1-tells-us-about-mans-knowledge-of-god/ and here, https://hipandthigh.wordpress.com/2016/04/05/sinners-and-their-knowledge-of-god-a-rejoinder/

    And don’t forget, R.C. Sproul (who is as Calvinist as anyone) holds to the classical method).

    I appreciate RC, my pastor and he are great pals. However, we all think he is wildly inconsistent along these lines. I’d reference the discussion he had with Greg Bahnsen a number of years ago now. I believe it is available on line if you search for it.

    And the Canons of Dordt: “There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior”

    Note the use of the “glimmerings of natural light whereby [man] retains some knowledge of God.”

    Again, I have no disagreement with that. But what the Canons of Dort are saying seems to go contrary to the views of man and his knowledge of God I am hearing from faculty and staff of SES. See again those articles up above with Adam.

  5. Regarding the amount of people who have turned Catholic that were covenantal I would recommend checking out a similar book that was written about Reformed people being “called to communion” http://www.calledtocommunion.com/about/authors/

    Regarding your view of natures, where did you get the concept of natures if there is no bible verse that specifically uses the word nature or human nature? In addition, is there a bible verse that actually defines human nature? Meaning a bible verse that says “Human nature is….” If not, then why do you keep using a term that the bible does not use to defend your view of human depravity? It seems like you’re reading your view into the text.

    I was not personally against the Reformers coming and teaching. But you made it sound like the only ones qualified to speak truthfully about what Reformers believe are the Reformed Theologians themselves. I think this is a problem, since there are examples of Christians who hold to Thomism that aren’t Catholic, just like there are those who received there MDiv’s from Covenantal Seminaries that went Catholic.

    Finally, I think we should all consider the politics behind a book like Evangelical Exodus (EE). In other words, what is the goal or end of writing a book like EE? Why not just talk about the beauty of Catholicism? The Catholics are not sleeping better because a book like EE was written, the true catholics probably won’t even read it, nor are they disturbed about a seminary that would teach Thomistic philosophy. If someone were trying to get an inter-protestant fight started, it seems like the book that would need to be written would be a book like EE. Something tells me that you’re doing exactly what the Catholic writers of EE hoped you would do, turn your arguments away from Catholicism and direct them towards your brothers in Christ at SES…just a thought.

  6. Hey again Daniel,
    You write,
    Regarding the amount of people who have turned Catholic that were covenantal I would recommend checking out a similar book that was written about Reformed people being “called to communion”

    Yes. I am very much aware of Called to Communion, but none of those individuals abandoned the faith for Catholicism due in part because of covenantalism or Reformed theology. They all have a mixed-bag of reasons, none of which say that they studied Covenant theology and then became Catholic. I know for a fact that at least a couple of them are lying in their bios. One in particular that I know states that he had questions that the Reformed faith could not answer, but he was squarely confronted as to his errors with irrefutable answers to his questions, and yet he still rejected the truth.

    Again, I think it would be naive to think that the Thomist philosophy has no influence when in point of fact the bulk of Thomist philosophers and thinkers are Catholic. It can’t be anymore obvious.

    Moving along,
    Regarding your view of natures, where did you get the concept of natures if there is no bible verse that specifically uses the word nature or human nature? In addition, is there a bible verse that actually defines human nature? Meaning a bible verse that says “Human nature is….” If not, then why do you keep using a term that the bible does not use to defend your view of human depravity? It seems like you’re reading your view into the text.

    I think this is going to be the main dividing line between our views. Just so I am not misrepresenting you, are you saying the Bible doesn’t have anything meaningful to say about human nature? That a Christian cannot go to God’s revelation and pull together a systematic, comprehensive definition of what it is to be a human being? What it is that makes men, manly, as it were?

    Do any of those passages I listed out above do anything to shape your understanding of who men are, how they function, what God declares about them? Or are they secondary and unimportant? Ephesians 2:3 says specifically that men are “by nature children of wrath.” The word nature means in Greek exactly what it means in English, depending on context. How do you understand what Paul says there in the opening chapters of Ephesians 2? However, to ask if there is just one Bible verse to meet your criteria defining human nature by saying “human nature is…” is like asking if there is one Bible verse that says there is a Trinity. We build our understanding of human nature from the whole of what the Bible states about humanity, just like we build our understanding of what the whole of Scripture states about the Godhead.

    I was not personally against the Reformers coming and teaching. But you made it sound like the only ones qualified to speak truthfully about what Reformers believe are the Reformed Theologians themselves. I think this is a problem, since there are examples of Christians who hold to Thomism that aren’t Catholic, just like there are those who received there MDiv’s from Covenantal Seminaries that went Catholic.

    Like I stated, given the history of SES, particularly Norman Geisler’s stated opposition and documented misrepresentation of Calvinism and the Reformed faith, I think it would be hard pressed to find a person there at your all’s seminary who would treat the topic fairly and with accurately. If the Thomism is a problem, find one of RC Sproul’s associates to visit.

    Finally, I think we should all consider the politics behind a book like Evangelical Exodus (EE). In other words, what is the goal or end of writing a book like EE? Why not just talk about the beauty of Catholicism? … If someone were trying to get an inter-protestant fight started, it seems like the book that would need to be written would be a book like EE. Something tells me that you’re doing exactly what the Catholic writers of EE hoped you would do, turn your arguments away from Catholicism and direct them towards your brothers in Christ at SES…just a thought

    I don’t see a conspiracy happening with that book. I’ve been blogging 12 years now consistently on a weekly basis and I have covered apologetic methodology a lot; and I mean, a lot. I’ve cataloged past articles at my blog if you are interested. The classical/Thomist apologetic has been one of my main objects of criticism, long before that book even came on the market. In my opinion, what those guys write about their deconversion only proves what I already saying, in fact, what a number of folks were already saying about the influence of Thomism on one’s thinking.

    I hope we both can agree that Catholicism is damnable heresy that does not present a Gospel that saves. We are on agreement with that I hope.

  7. Pingback: Presuppositional Apologetics’ Links: Third Week of June 2016 | The Domain for Truth

  8. Hey Fred,
    Excellent post in response to what is a serious issue over here in Charlotte with SES. Having encountered many of these apologists, I have decided that in many cases, these guys are not seeking to convince others of the truth of Scripture. They are actually trying to convince themselves. I think SES is contributing to a very serious problem in evangelicalism and it is not unrelated to the problem of unregenerate men in pulpits, lecture in seminaries, and running around claiming to be apologists. After several conversations, I believe the issue is real.

  9. Didn’t lay a glove on Aquinas or Feser, though. “No, it’s not, read your Bible” is the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind in a nutshell, and why most evangelicals cannot function outside their little bubble.

    See also Protestant Scholasticism. Beza and Melanchthon fit that description. All is not lost. ;-)

    http://mb-soft.com/believe/txc/scholasp.htm

  10. Pingback: Articles on Apologetics and Evangelism | hipandthigh

  11. “Gobbledygook.” A perfect word to describe pretty much all forms of philosophy. ;)

    On a more serious note, ever since I was exposed to basic philosophy (via RC Sproul’s teaching), I wrestle with how a deep fascination with it jives with Col. 2:8…?

Leave me a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s