Essay / Theology

Why Protestants Should Read Thomas Aquinas (1: The Myth of the Dark Ages)

This week I spoke for Saint Augustine Classical Academy’s Spring Speaker series on the topic, “Why Protestants Should Read Thomas Aquinas,” with the alternate title, “The Myth of the Dark Ages.” I shared with the parents and administrators there that there are four benefits for evangelical Protestants reading Aquinas. Here is the first benefit.

1. To Claim the Great Tradition as Our Own

The whole idea of “the dark ages” was invented by critics of Christianity. The first people to label a dozen centuries as “dark” thought that there had been brightness and knowledge in the Graeco-Roman world with its supposedly sunny paganism, and there was brightness and knowledge again in the Renaissance or the Englightenment with their recovery of the classics and their historical-critical investigations, but that in between there was a period of darkness. Notice what’s in that dark period: Christianity. Evangelicals should be very cautious about marking those dozen centuries on our timeline as “dark.” We might be trying to point out that there were some corruptions of faith and practice between the earliest church and the great Reformation, which is true. But if we paint with a broad brush, we end up painting the same “dark ages” picture as the faith’s most radical critics. Dismissing the middle ages has proven to be a good first step to dismissing Christianity.

Here is an example of the myth of the dark ages. In the first pages of Thomas Aquinas’ masterpiece, the Summa Theologia, Thomas is arguing that theology is a real way of knowledge alongside philosophy. He points out that some truths can be known in multiple ways, and for an illustration he uses the roundness of the earth: “For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself.” It’s a throwaway illustration for Thomas, which he thinks will be persuasive because it’s not controversial.

Students are often shocked to find this example staring at them from their thirteenth-century book: That everybody knows the earth is round. They try to reconcile that fact with the myth of the dark ages, according to which medievals thought the earth was flat and in 1492 Columbus defied conventional wisdom by sailing right around it without falling off the edge. “Maybe they forgot between 1274 and 1492.” Maybe. Or maybe the flat earth is part of the myth of the dark ages, devised to keep you from looking into the middle ages lest you find powerful allies there.

Instead of making common cause with secularists and liberals, evangelical Protestants should make common cause with the great tradition of Christian thought. We need friends in the thirteenth century, and Thomas Aquinas is a good friend. Who benefits from slicing up Christian history and requiring my church to settle for the final fourth of the timeline, from 1517 to today (or an even smaller segment of the timeline, from 1740, or 1968, or… how little can you live on?)?

Once the myth has been dispelled, and the terra incognita on our mental maps has been opened up for exploration (HERE THERE BE DRAGONS), we can even admit that there actually was such a thing as a dark age in the medieval period. It lasted about 150 years, from just after the death of Boethius (who was going to translate Plato and Aristotle into Latin for the barbarian kings who had taken over Rome) to the rise of Charlemagne and the massive educational renewal of the Carolingian reforms. There were some other dips and dark spots throughout the middle centuries, but they were all compensated for by renewals and revivals like the rise of the medieval universities, the Cluniac reforms, intellectual trade with the Muslim world, and other events we’re not supposed to know about. We are supposed to be obedient moderns and believe that a thin trickle of faithfulness and thought has run through the vast desert of ignorance and corruption. But that is the opposite of the truth. In fact, the dark ages were very short, and the great tradition of Christianity is very big.

Begone, myth of the dark ages! Bring me the Summa Theologia, let’s teach our children some Latin and Greek. Protestants should refuse to be driven out onto a narrow strip of land when the whole tradition is rightly ours.

As a convinced Protestant, I don’t really want to come to agreement with the kind of Roman Catholicism that anathematized Martin Luther for teaching the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. If I’m looking for bad guys in church history, that would be them. But how far back before the sixteenth century do you have to go to find good guys? Most evangelicals would take a long jump from there, back to the first century. Bad move. There are many friends in the intervening centuries, and not just scattered at the fringes of the church.

The great tradition of Christian thought and life is ours. We should claim it by knowing it. And along that line, Thomas Aquinas isn’t just anybody: He synthesized all that had gone before him in an astonishing way. If you get Thomas Aquinas, you get a lively interpretation of the whole stream of Christian thought (and also, surprisingly, Jewish and Arabic and classical Greek and Roman thought) that went before him.

Norm Geisler once asked, “Should Old Aquinas Be Forgot?” and answered decisively: No.

To be sure, Thomas is the official theologian and philosopher of the Roman Catholic church (see Leo XIII’s 1879 declaration on the subject, Aeterni Patris), and at numerous points he is identifiably refusing to say what Protestants insist on saying. This shows up most strongly in the doctrine of salvation. But in doctrine after doctrine, Thomas has thought deeply about Christian theology, and said the main things clearly and brilliantly.

Next: Faith and Reason

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