Essay / Theology

Why Protestants Should Read Thomas Aquinas (2: Faith and Reason)

A second benefit of reading Thomas Aquinas (see my previous post for the first benefit) is that Thomas Aquinas knew how to use both faith and reason. Thinking Christians need to know how to do this.

When people first read Thomas, some people consider him a rationalist (he can prove God’s existence using pure reason!), and some people consider him a fideist (special revelation is necessary for true knowledge of God!). When somebody is blamed for having opposite faults at the same time, it is sometimes a clue that they are in fact a balanced person, flanked by extremists. Such is the case with Thomas Aquinas. He rejects the false dichotomy between faith and reason, and denies that there can be any real, final conflict between them.

A good place to see this is in what Thomas says about our knowledge of God. On the one hand, Thomas is famous for his Five Ways of proving God’s existence. One of the Five Ways is a proof adapted from Aristotle, in which Thomas argues back from motion itself to show that motion requires a mover which requires a mover which requires a mover which requires that eventually we come to some first mover, a mover which is not itself moved by a prior mover. And if we don’t come to that unmoved mover (instead running back mentally in an infinite regress of moved movers), we never get any motion. But there’s motion. So God.

According to Thomas, the proofs of the existence of God mean that any reasonable person should know that there is a God. It can be demonstrated to them just on the basis of rational thought.

When Thomas comes to the doctrine of God as an article of faith, however, and considers not just THAT there is a God, but WHAT or WHO that God is, he argues that reason alone cannot answer that question. God himself must tell us, through the Word of special revelation, who he is, and what is is to be God. For example, we cannot know that God is Father, Son, and Spirit, except by special revelation.

It all makes sense when Thomas explains it patiently and with his characteristic calm equilibrium. He cites Paul (“here is what The Apostle says”) and Aristotle (“here is what The Philosopher says”) and makes a strong case. But the balance between faith and reason is a hard one to maintain for most of us. When I speak in churches on the doctrine of the Trinity, I always show that the doctrine cannot be known or proven apart from revelation. When I take questions from the audience, they are usually split down the middle as surely as if I had administered a personality test. Half of them want to prove the Trinity using something like the Five Ways or analogies, and are deeply worried that unless they can do so they are surrendering their beliefs to irrationality. The other half are sure that we can only know the Trinity because the Bible tells us so, but they are also convinced that we can’t know whether there’s a creator except by faith and special revelation. One side wants all reason, the other wants all faith. In fact, half of us have let our reason eclipse our faith (“faith is for baby Christians; we who have pondered this can prove all things”) and the other half have let their reason eat their faith (“the more you know, the less you believe, so close your mind very tightly”).

But it’s a false dichotomy. In doctrine after doctrine, Thomas is able to be a model of somebody who knows what reason is for, and what faith is for, and is able to use them both in their appropriate places. And he not only keeps that balance himself; he is able to teach us how to do it. That’s the second benefit of reading Thomas.

Next up, the third benefit: Skillful reasoning.

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