Aquinas and Apologetics

Some people have Ken Ham, some people have Thomas Aquinas. Some people talk about the truth of the Bible, some people talk about the truth of Thomism.

So you would agree that its a personality cult.

Aquinas is not a personality cult. @Jonathan_Burke please stop using inflammatory words like that.

Aquinas is one of the greatest proponents of the perennial philosophical tradition of classical theism which includes the early church fathers, Augustine, Anselm, and afterwards Reformed Orthodoxy. Even historical Protestants who reject his views on the sacraments (for example) tend to highly value his contributions to the doctrine of God, for example. His metaphysics is an integral part of his theology, so you have to be careful if you want to reject it completely.

EDIT: there was a mistake in this post. Jonathan Burke did not use the word “personality cult” - it was John Harshman who did so, and I mistook Jonathan’s seemingly approving quote of Harshman’s words for him saying those very words. This was an error, and for that I apologize.

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I don’t think the reverence for Thomas Aquinas is quite what is usually meant by a personality cult. I think of personality cults as the followings of movie stars or charismatic politicians etc. Aquinas was not a very charismatic individual; he was more of an academic nerd by modern standards. I think it is more like the reverence for philosophers, ideologies, etc. You get people who are diehard Kantians, diehard Marxists, diehard Libertarians, diehard Whiteheadians, diehard classical neo-Darwinians, diehard Democrats, diehard JWs, etc., who are convinced that one person or one ideology or theory has all the answers, and tend to accept everything about that person or ideology or theory as a “package deal”. I’m not built for that kind of “all or nothing” agreement with persons or programs. Philosophical argumentation for such people tends to decay into ideology or apologetics.

I think Thomas Aquinas was one of the greatest thinkers and teachers who ever lived, and I don’t take his views on things lightly, even where I disagree. But I can’t be an Aquinas groupie. I would say that Aquinas is vastly preferable to someone like Ken Ham, much closer to a proper intellectual and philosophical appropriation of religious faith. But I’m not a Thomist, just someone who admires Thomas more than he admires “Thomism”.

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Which words were inflammatory and why? By inflammatory do you mean statements you disagree with? Is it inflammatory to say Aquinas can’t be wrong?

Yes, but some people believe his classical theism is rubbish, has been harmful, and has no place in Christianity. I’m still not sold on his views on war and slavery for example, but hey maybe we can try them again, see how that goes.

Yes. His metaphysics are largely an apologetic for his theology. I have no hesitation junking his metaphysics, and no hesitation junking his theology.

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“personality cult”. Wasn’t that obvious?

EDIT: there was a mistake in this post. Jonathan Burke did not use the word “personality cult” - it was John Harshman who did so, and I mistook Jonathan’s seemingly approving quote of Harshman’s words for him saying those very words. This was an error, and for that I apologize.

No, I mean terms like “personality cult” which are needlessly antagonistic.

Edit: also “rubbish”, “junking”. Harshman was the first to use “personality cult.”

It’s not inflammatory to criticize Aquinas or anyone else. Stop pretending that criticism is forbidden. Criticize peacefully.

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Sure, you are free to reject Aquinas. I can understand that if you are already a Christadelphian, that historical perennial tradition probably means little to you. I was more thinking of Christians who claim to accept the historical creeds and the theology of the Reformers - one should be careful of completely rejecting Aquinas because of how great is influence is in historical theology.

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Exactly. I have raised previously the problem of trying to deal with (or contradict), modern science by appealing to medieval science, specifically with regard to Thomism. It is a waste of time. This is why such discussions occur in the fringes of marginal groups, instead of in mainstream science. People need to accept that Aquinas didn’t have an accurate understanding of science, and in fact didn’t have an accurate understanding of theology either. That’s even before we get started on his questionable morality.

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I have always held that if Aquinas could travel to modern day and learn all that he wanted, he would revise some of his ideas

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I wonder to what extent that’s true. Given his philosophy and science were so completely welded to his theology, he couldn’t alter one without altering the other. This is why Aristotelian science is so hard for devoted Thomists to give up; if modern science is correct, then Aquinas’ theology starts to crack. Aquinas was dedicated to certain specific Catholic dogmas, and found support for them in Aristotle’s understanding of science and philosophy. To what extent do you think he would be prepared to reject those religious dogmas?

I think he would have to, because he was devoted to reason above all else. I don’t claim to know how we would revise his thinking, only that he would.

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In theory he was devoted to reason, but in practice it didn’t work out that way. Aquinas typically starts with his preferred conclusions, then seeks to find support for them. This is typical apologetics, not an unfettered application of reason. Like Aquinas, plenty of people throughout history have been devoted to reason while being wedded to dogma. People aren’t always very rational.

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Well, here’s one tiny example of something which I believe Aquinas would want to revise, “ Aquinas follows Aristotle in believing that heavenly bodies are not subject to decay because they are a different sort of material thing than other material things. Aquinas and Aristotle, first of all, believe that the heavenly bodies, the spheres, are eternal because it is a matter of observation that they move around the earth in uniform circular motion without any variation over many years.”
Now he might just declare the error is limited in scope and be done with it, but then again it may lead him to start rethinking notions of what is eternal and why. Opening a can of worms as it were.

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That could really let the cat out of the bag.

Though I don’t agree with this as a fair statement about Aquinas, let’s for the sake of argument say that it is to some extent true. My question would then be: is there any Christian theology, denomination, sect, or theologian that doesn’t do this to some extent? If not, then why pick on Aquinas for playing the same game as all the others?

For example, some sectarians are willing to discount the plain teaching of the Synoptic Gospels regarding the existence of demons and exorcism, because they have decided on a priori grounds that demons and exorcism have no place in Christian theology. Instead of following the text wherever it leads, and constructing their theology on that, they beat the text into the shape of their preferred theology. That is, their reasoning is distorted by their apologetic needs.

The charge that someone is doing apologetics rather than honest, fearless reasoning is easy enough to make, but in my experience, there almost always seems to be an agenda of some kind. Some Christians are less guilty of this than others, but few if any can resist the temptation 100% of the time.

Of course, this does not apply just to Christians. I’ve seen the same behavior in the exegesis of Hindu texts by Hindu theologians, for example. There is a marked tendency of Hindu theologians to find the theology of their particular school in the Vedas, and to gloss over everything in the text that doesn’t fit with that theology. And it applies to philosophers as well. They tend to ignore phenomena that don’t fit in with the philosophical construction that they are trying to sell to the world. Or if they can’t ignore the phenomena, they resort to desperate extremes (that they would never resort to in practical matters) to make the anomalous phenomena fit into their scheme. The truth about social and economic reality may lie somewhere in between Ayn Rand and Karl Marx, but you will never get a diehard Marxist or Randian to say to the other, “You have a point there.” It seems to be part of human nature that once an intellectual or religious construct is adopted, reason will be twisted as much as necessary to vindicate the construct.

I actually find that Aquinas does this sort of thing much less than a good number of Protestant theologians.

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Yes there are, but even if there weren’t it wouldn’t matter. A tu quoque fallacy can’t defend Aquinas from criticism in this area. It’s wrong any time anyone does it.

Goodness, how shocking! That sounds like a bad idea.

Well the whole issue of “following the text wherever it leads” does depend on what we believe the text means, and that depends on the hermeneutics we apply. YECs believe that following the text wherever it leads results in a 6,000 year old earth. Obviously they are wrong. So casual talk of “following the text wherever it leads” doesn’t really get us far.

Our reading of the text must be informed by both intertextual and extratextual sources of information. If we find that such sources provide a basis on which to read the text in a manner other than simplistic literalism, ignorant of both relevant lexicography and socio-historical context, then we are still “following the text wherever it leads”. However, we are doing so on an intelligent, informed basis.

When someone is writing theology which supports their denomination’s views, and their arguments are manifestly written from personal opinion or on the basis of obviously misinterpreted passages, then it’s pretty clear that they’re writing apologetics. Look at Aquinas’ comments on whether sin stains the soul. He cites a couple of Bible verses (none of which have any relevance), makes a handful of unsubstantiated assertions (based on nothing but his personal opinion about the soul), and that’s it. Try submitting that to a theology professor today and see how far you get. And he writes pages of this stuff.

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I’ll let you take up your complaints about Aquinas’s theology and exegesis with the many able Thomists who are around today.

So if one group or denomination has a dogmatic view that there are no demons and no demonic possessions and no exorcisms, and can sustain that view only by the use of “obviously misinterpreted passages” from the Synoptic Gospels, what then? Isn’t that every bit as bad as misusing the Bible (if it is a misuse) to prove that sin stains the soul?

And what exactly is “simplistic literalism”? The majority of earnest Christians I know believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead. Are they guilty of “simplistic literalism” for reading the Gospels in that way? And if not, why is it not reasonable for them to treat the Gospel narratives about demons and exorcism “literally”? What a priori theological assumptions are being smuggled in to bar the inference that demons really exist, while the belief that a man rose from the dead is not similarly disallowed?

Yes, it’s true that just because others do something, that doesn’t justify Aquinas in doing it (if he does it, which I leave to you and the Thomists to thrash out). But it’s an odd double standard that condemns illegitimate control of exegesis by dogma when the theologians involved are mainstream (Aquinas, Augustine, Luther, Calvin), but gives a free pass to such control when the theologians involved are maverick sectarians.

Then that’s really bad.

Yes it most certainly is. Definitely a thing which shouldn’t happen. On the other hand, if it isn’t a dogma,[1] and there’s no misuse of the Bible involved, that’s a very different matter.

For example, if it’s based on peer reviewed lexicography, and it’s a view found within mainstream scholarship, and it’s substantiated by experimental evidence which could easily falsify it, then that’s a very different matter. Then it’s an interpretation which needs to be taken seriously.

Something tells me you don’t usually have a problem identify this, especially when conversing with YECs.

Yeah, like me.

No.

Well here you’re just asking for a class on hermeneutics. When shall we start? That’s just like asking why it isn’t reasonable for them to conclude that the earth is 6,000 years old, or that the earth is flat, or that the sun goes around the earth, or that there’s a solid ceiling over the earth.

Augustine already covered this. Galileo already covered this. It’s odd that we should still have to cover this in current year, especially in discussions with the intellectually sophisticatd and academically learned.

Well I am kind of surprised I have to explain this to you, but ok let’s go. Firstly the inference that demons really exist isn’t being barred; it’s being rejected on the basis of a combination of positive and negative evidence (if the evidence changes, then the situation will change; simple!). Secondly the reason why the belief that a man rose from the dead isn’t disallowed is the same; a combination of positive and negative evidence.


[1] “a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds.”, Inc Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003); “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertible.”, Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson, eds., Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

My question was rhetorical. No, I don’t need the class on hermeneutics. My graduate work was done in one of the top secular schools in the world dealing with Biblical hermeneutics. I know you don’t believe that, but I don’t really care.

Augustine, who accepted the Gospel accounts of demon-possession and exorcism, based on his own hermeneutical principles? You have to find a narratological reason why the resurrection stories in the Gospels are treated as basically straight history by the people I’m alluding to, whereas the demon stories aren’t. I’m looking for an account based on the text of the Gospels, not of, say, what the Apostolic Fathers might have said about the subject.

Anyhow, this is a side point regarding Aquinas. If you like, start a new discussion with a title something like, “Are the Demon Possession Stories in the Gospels Meant Historically?” I would be interested to hear your Gospel exegesis. We can make it a discussion for 2020. Until then, a Merry Christmas to you – and all!

I love collecting these!

Yes Augustine. Do you understand the point of what he wrote?

Yes, that Augustine.

Why? Can I ask if you are at all familiar with any of the scholarship in this field? Any at all?

I agree they are meant historically, so that won’t be a long discussion.

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