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When The Future Dries Up
No.115: July 8, 2022
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I really don’t have a very firm plan for what is about to come out of my fingertips on this keyboard and it will probably show. Let’s just see what happens, shall we? And I apologize if it gets too “inside baseball” on the theology stuff. It won’t be for everyone, but that can’t be helped.
My middle daughter recently got her driver’s license, which has been alternately very fun and somewhat panic-inducing. She’s requisitioned my old 2000 Mercury Mountaineer and she loves it because it has—get this!—a CD player. So retro! So she ransacked my old CD collection and now loves driving around listening to “her” music. She was driving me around the other day and we were listening to U2’s Rattle & Hum (which, incidentally, has a pretty solid argument for being the band’s very best album of all time, but I digress).
It was Track 14, a song called “God: Part II” that caught my attention, as it always does. I take it as Bono’s savage ridicule of our culture’s sentimentality, moral hypocrisy, and crisis of responsibility. He sings:
I don’t believe in the 60s, the golden age of pop / you glorify the past when the future dries up
I have always loved that line and, being a weirdo, I immediately thought about St. Thomas Aquinas. I guess it is more accurate to say that I had already been thinking about St. Thomas Aquinas and this lyric just seamlessly slid into the conversation.
You are probably (and thankfully) not aware of it, but the Theobros are still warring on Twitter about the alleged merits and demerits (heh) of Aquinas. It is tiresome and endless stuff, if you ask me; somewhat because I am sympathetic to both “sides” of the debate (for different reasons), but mostly because I believe there is no satisfactory end to this debate.
You know why? Because Thomas Aquinas was a man, not God. His deliverances have to be taken on a case-by-case basis, subjected to and scrutinized by the Word of God—which is also the case for everything any human being thinks and writes. But instead we have two polarized “sides,” one utterly smitten with the “Angelic Doctor,” and the other sees nothing but “Villain.” It’s a juvenile melodrama.
Here are some thoughts in my head.
I am sympathetic to the “pro-Thomas” crowd because I think the guy had a dizzying intellect and it is simply foolish to ignore him—Owen Strachan’s Twitter rants against Aquinas (and … Nicea!), which are alarmingly veering into Anabaptist and Socinian territory, are extremely immature. Thomas is not a dastardly villain who is certain to shipwreck the faith, and no—I am sorry, Owen—the Council of Nicea is not really debatable. It is certainly not debatable in the interests of neo-subordinationism. Thomas wrote a lot of intricate theology, and if there are insights that we have forgotten and that need “retrieving,” by all means, let’s retrieve them.
But—and you knew that was coming, didn’t you?—I am not at all clear on what the standards are for what is worth retrieving. Keep in mind: the “retrievalists” are mostly card-carrying Reformed theologians, and I don’t quite understand why I am being told that Thomas’s 13th-century articulations of, say, divine simplicity and eternal processions have settled everything for all time, yet his discourses on, say, purgatory or penance or transubstantiation are all … take it or leave it? If the discriminating criteria is just, “We take what we agree with and leave what we don’t agree with,” I am not sure that can really be called retrieval. You’re not exactly learning from Aquinas; you’re using Aquinas to ratify what you already believe on other grounds.
Continuing with my “but,” the Pro-Thomas crowd seems very content to just point to ways in which the Magisterial Reformers and Protestant scholastics read and profited from Aquinas, as if that somehow settles actual theological matters. It just doesn’t. Thomas can be wrong about something, and if you line up a hundred Reformed theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries who agree with him, that doesn’t suddenly make Thomas right. Theological truth is not a matter of counting heads. This is a persistent fallacy, this turning systematic theology into historical theology. They are not the same thing. Thomas was wrong in his exegesis of Romans 1, for example, and he didn’t get more right just because R.C. Sproul and John Gerstner (sadly) agreed with him.
He’s not an angel, he’s not a demon; he’s a really smart and sometimes interesting theologian of the 13th century.
Next thought: I don’t actually find him all that helpful (talk about “confess your unpopular opinion”). Here’s a symposium designed to argue for the Pro-Thomas faction. Three contemporary Reformed theologians share ways to “critically appropriate and retrieve the theology of Thomas Aquinas.” First up is my old professor, Carl Trueman, who points us to the usefulness of Thomas’s doctrine of predestination. He summarizes:
The argument is straightforward and makes the point that God directs all things toward their proper end (providence). Some ends are proportional to the creature’s nature (e.g., procreation). Other ends, however, may be beyond the nature of the creature. This is the case with eternal life. Human beings cannot achieve this simply by acting in accordance with their nature. Like how water turning into steam requires some cause from outside to move it from potency to act, so human beings require some cause beyond that intrinsic to their nature which can move them to eternal life. This is predestination: literally, the prior determination of God to take particular individuals beyond their natural capacities and into eternal communion with himself.
Um, I have questions. Thomas’s argument here rests firmly on the doctrine of the donum superadditum—the “super-added gift”—the idea that “nature” intrinsically needs supernatural supplementation or “completion” by grace. The Reformers unanimously rejected the donum superadditum wholesale. It is not a fact, as Trueman asserts here, that “human beings cannot achieve eternal life by acting in accordance with their nature.” Fallen human beings cannot achieve this, true enough. But unfallen Adam certainly could have done so had he obeyed God’s command. The contrast between nature and grace is ethical and redemptive-historical, not a matter of some superior substance (grace) completing or elevating an inferior one (nature). This is 100% pure distilled Reformed theology.
So Carl Trueman steps up as a Reformed theologian to explain to us the great value of Thomas Aquinas and he wants to retrieve … nature/grace dualism and the donum superadditum? Pardon me if that strikes me as kind of a face-palm. This symposium is not off to a good start, and if this is going to be characteristic of the retrieval movement maybe the skeptics have a better case than I initially thought. Moreover, it strikes me that Trueman’s essay completely fails to establish that Thomas said anything at all on this subject that needs retrieval. Does Thomas have some contribution that corrects, improves upon, or illuminates say, the Canons of Dort? Not even close. Not by a country mile.
Kelly Kapic’s exploration of Thomas’s treatment of humility is edifying, I suppose, but I can discern almost nothing that I couldn’t have learned from a hundred other theologians who were very likely more engaging writers than Thomas. What, exactly, is the “value-add,” here?
And I’m not certain Michael Horton followed the assignment at all. Aquinas makes a marginal appearance in his essay on whether the Reformation is responsible for the triumph of nominalism. On that topic, it’s a fine essay. But I certainly didn’t learn ways to “critically appropriate and retrieve the theology of Thomas Aquinas.”
If the retrievalists want to retrieve something forgotten or useful, I’m open to it. But I’m also waiting.
Next thought: Thomas Aquinas was a really smart theologian of the 13th century, but he was not the only really smart theologian of the 13th century, and I am not sure why he gets inordinate attention. His Franciscan contemporary Bonaventure also wrote brilliant and subtle works of theology, and he broke with Aquinas on some pretty important issues, not least of which was theological method. Bonaventure rejected the scholastic method of “building up” to theological truths by way of dialectic questioning, and he did this on presuppositional grounds. Dominic Monti explains that the scholastic technique “had the effect of ‘bracketing’ Christian belief, creating a kind of medieval ‘hermeneutic of suspicion.’” In his skepticism toward this kind of faux intellectual neutrality, Bonaventure was following Anselm, who a century earlier wrote to Pope Urban II:
No Christian ought to argue how things that the Catholic Church believes with its heart and confesses with its mouth are not so. Rather, by always adhering to the same faith without hesitation, by loving it, and living according to it, a Christian humbly ought to seek, so far as one can, the reason how they are so [….] For it is a fact that the more powerfully Holy Scripture nourishes us with things that feed us by obedience, the more accurately we are carried along to things that satisfy us intellectually [….] Certainly, this is what I am saying: those who have not first believed, will not understand. For those who have not believed will not experience, and those who have not experienced, will not know.
Now, when Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck and Cornelius Van Til want to “retrieve” that part of the tradition—a proto-presuppositionalist stream—they are pilloried by the new Pro-Thomas faction. Why? Why is Thomas to be preferred to Bonaventure? And why, given the actual historical existence of Bonaventure, are we told that the tradition of “classical” theism and “classical” apologetics is synonymous with Thomism? Sure, Thomas had more historical impact, but later reception says nothing about the truth or falsity of a matter. All that is to say, the preference for retrieving Thomas Aquinas seems pretty arbitrary to me.
So I really need to get back to U2. The question I have is why? Why this sudden spasm of interest for one particular 13th century theologian? I don’t know (I do know it isn’t because Thomas Aquinas wrote scintillating page-turners) but I do wonder if we glorify the past when the future dries up. At the turn of the 20th century Herman Bavinck observed, “There is clearly no rosy future awaiting Calvinism in America,” and, alas, he was right.
Maybe this is just a continuation of a kind of Reformed romanticism that’s been around for a long time. I grew up reading guys who thought that the world would change for the better—we could change the culture around us—if the church would just re-create the worship services of the 16th century. Maybe this is just a continuation of that kind of sentimentalism, only dipping back a few further centuries distant. Perhaps this romanticism reflects a massive lack of self-confidence. Are our confessions not enough? How so? Did our theologians not already do the retrieval? Didn’t they interact with, correct, and improve upon Aquinas? I daresay they did, and they certainly didn’t swallow him whole—at least they knew how to recognize and have the presence of mind to reject the donum superadditum when it was right in front of them.
Maybe we’re discontented because we don’t seem to have any really towering theologians anymore and we need a hero. Maybe this is just a trendy fad. Maybe people are overly suspicious of actual theological refinement and reform—that’s definitely the case when it comes to Van Til. (Although, as I’ve noted, there’s a respected pedigree for his formulations in the catholic tradition, too; what is Van Til’s approach but the consistent application of credo ut intelligam—“I believe that I may understand”?)
As a Reformed Calvinist, I’d like to see a bit more self-confidence in our own tradition, through which Aquinas has already been refracted. I’ve got no beef with reading and benefitting from Thomas Aquinas, but the retrieval “movement,” such as it is, seems awfully giddy about it, like it’s totally new and exciting and is going to lead us to something new and fruitful. Maybe that’s it. Boredom. Are we bored with our current relationship? Is that what’s going on? That reminds me of another great and relevant U2 lyric:
I could never take the chance / of losing love to find romance
You know, come to think of it, a person could do a lot worse than just sticking with good old trustworthy Herman Bavinck.
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