Thomas Aquinas: So Hot Right Now

This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “The Compendium of Theology: Readings in Thomas Aquinas”, running in the Summer Term 2023 (July to August), and convened by Ryan Hurd.

If you wish to register for the module you can do so here.

Thomas Aquinas has received notable attention among Protestants in recent years. This newfound interest largely centers on his doctrine of God, which many offer as the antidote to various deficiencies now prevalent in the Protestant world.

The growing popularity among Protestants of Roman Catholicism’s greatest theologian is certainly a welcome development. Thomas’s teaching was the culmination of patristic doctrine of God, and the flowering of medieval theology proper. His proponents rightly note that his teaching about God is both universal and adequate, considering everything which can be said of God and doing so sufficiently, making Thomas the best candidate to provide Protestants some much-needed assistance.

Excitement then at this Thomist renaissance—or better, “naissance”—is certainly understandable. However, it must also be tempered by some sobering facts. For one, much Protestant resourcement from Thomas thus far has not been true to his thought, and often has only a surface similarity to some of the things he said. This similarity lies in the mere fact that the words and topics are the same; closer inspection reveals that the intention and teachings most certainly are not. In a Protestant context, what may appear to be Thomist appropriation and what is often touted to be Thomist teaching is all-too-frequently unrecognizable to those who know him.

Indeed, despite such focus on Thomas’s doctrine of God, little understanding is had even of its basic elements. This includes initial distinctions in theology proper between positive and negative names; between various kinds of positive names (e.g., those designating simple versus mixed perfections); between absolute versus relative names; between various modes of predication, such as speaking formally, eminently, properly, improperly, metaphorically, analogically (and various kinds of speaking analogically!)—the list goes on, and it is long. This terminology may seem alien to the reader, and understandably so; but these things are fundamental to Thomas and the “operating system” in his mind. By pointing out these omissions in Protestant appropriations of Thomas, I do not intend to be a wet blanket. It is only to say that until these points (and many more) are recovered, readings of Thomas’s pages have not penetrated to the riches of his mind, nor will they.

But something else is sobering: Protestant advocates of Thomas must face a reckoning, when the best of their tradition(s) e.g. the Reformed Orthodox often agree much less with Thomas than people today are imagining (and often quite loudly are claiming). In this sense, Protestant critics of this surge of Thomism in their ranks are perfectly right to divide the line here. Indeed, the Reformed Orthodox are an eclectic mix of competing theologies taped up together and trying to be new. And despite many studies about “Thomas’s influence on X Protestant theologian,” more often than not, Thomas and early-modern Protestants are apples and oranges, including when it comes to doctrine of God; and Thomas’s “influence” is more akin to Shakespeare’s influence on me and my English, although I have never studied and hardly read him.

The fact that Thomas and early-modern Protestants are more dissimilar than comparable can be hard to see, especially when e.g. each speaks with the same conventional signs, which inclines people to suppose that each has the same understanding. After all, we are quickly reminded, all Reformed Orthodox held that God is simple and indeed altogether so, admitting no composition. And yes, this too was Thomas’s first question after he demonstrated through scientific reasons that this that God is is, i.e. that such judgment is true–he then immediately asks whether God is simple, and responds that obviously God nowise has composition.

The devil is in the details, however; and there we find that most likely there are few Protestants who ever held to Thomas’s divine simplicity. The Thomist teaching about that composition said of God through division, is (to speak Thomistically for a moment) a certain negation of a very certain Real Distinction (of esse and essentia), whose formal cause of such negation is a certain reason which involves act and potency; the non-subsistence of esse although it is the act before every act; essentia as the limit-feature of esse and its, so to speak, interiorly-posited restriction; and other very basic Thomist things. Again, obviously this is a bunch of “Thomist-speak,” but that is precisely the point: most of it the Reformed, who are rarely well-versed in Thomist metaphysics, do not know with any clarity. Now yes, all Reformed theologians had the good sense to be inclined, given the great medieval doctors before them, to the negative part of contradiction whenever “composition” and “God” were involved; but in this, they are thinking about very different things than Thomas. Here, “divine simplicity” is merely similar phrasing (common among a host of competing theologies), not necessarily similar understanding. And this is not even to mention differences as to “function” or usage of simplicity throughout theology proper, differences which were rather extreme.

The issue does not stop with negative names. For example, as I often have to remind my students, Thomas refused to believe that what the majority of Reformed Orthodox hold as “divine attributes” were indeed such. Protestants were mostly concerned about the so-called “biblical names,” and developed a correspondent theology which handled attributes important to the biblical corpus–ones like mercy and justice, for example. But Thomas does not hold that these are attributes in God’s essence, something in God similar to mercy and justice in us; rather, mercy and justice are creaturely forms which we can pick up and use to somewhat explain God’s works. Much to students’ surprise (and alarm), God for Thomas never is merciful or just–at most, he acts mercifully and justly. This is not a linguistic trick, nor a small difference: understanding this takes time and careful study. But the point remains: Thomas’s doctrine of God and that of early modern Protestants are extremely different from one another, sometimes in alarming ways and ones which will be difficult to swallow.

Once again, highlighting these more sobering facts is not intended to kick dirt on the fire. It is only to remark that there are extremely serious issues which demand equally serious attention and serious study, if Protestants do expect to be helped by the Angelic Doctor, who, I am sure, is still most inclined to help–he was indeed a compassionate teacher who gives milk to all his students, even those far and abroad. In my upcoming Summer Term 2023 Davenant Hall course “The Compendium of Theology: Readings in Thomas Aquinas,” we will apprentice ourselves to Thomas on his own terms, and carefully read and learn to read his texts, so that we can receive the riches of his mind. Solutions to problems in doctrine of God will be long in coming; dedication to Thomas as our great medieval master is a good place to start.

This Dogmatics course will be taught by Ryan Hurd. This course will run from July 3rd through August 26th. The syllabus will be available soon. Register here.

Ryan Hurd is a systematic theologian whose area of expertise is doctrine of God, specifically the Trinity. He teaches at Davenant Hall.


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