Thomas Aquinas on The Relationship Between Philosophy and Scripture

I don’t know where I picked it up, but somewhere along the way I picked up the idea that Thomas Aquinas was simply a philosopher who also talked about God. When I thought of Thomas, I thought medieval scholasticism, which I was taught is a bad thing! It’s all about reason, philosophy and minutia of arguments over things like “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin”. Yes, that angels dancing on a pin thing was quoted a bunch of times during my college education, to make the point that medieval scholasticism was not worth my time to explore.

Also, being immersed in world of American Calvinist/Reformed theology, I subconsciously absorbed the idea that you had to choose between philosophy and theology, because they are mutually exclusive. Even more, if you called yourself a philosopher, this means you probably denied Sola Scriptura and denied the Divine Authority of scripture. And maybe, just maybe, GASP, you may even believe in natural theology and reject presuppositional apologetics, which seems to be the membership card of being truly reformed these days.

Even though there is R.C. Sproul of blessed memory, who taught and defended classical apologetics and taught an excellent class on philosophy, that seemed like an oddity in his otherwise solid teaching. In the last six months or so, I have dove back into Dr. Sproul’s teachings on these matters and started to read the Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas. I wanted to share a section I read recently (Question 1, Article 1) and make a few comments.

“On the contrary, it is written, (II Tim 3:16) All Scripture inspired of God is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice. Now Scripture inspired of God is no part of the philosophical sciences, which have been built up by human reason. Therefore it is useful that besides philosophical doctrine there should be other knowledge that is, inspired of God.

Here Thomas is answering the objection that because we have reason and philosophy, we don’t need divine revelation. He clearly denies this, and in addition he argues that there is a clear distinction between reason and revelation.

I answer that, It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God, besides the philosophical sciences built up by human reason. First, indeed, because man is directed to God as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: The eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee (Isa. 64:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation.

So contrary to what I thought, that Thomas denied the necessity of Scripture because he used philosophy, instead I found that Thomas taught there were truths that exceeded human reason and could only be discovered through divine revelation.

Even as regards those truths about God which human reason can discover, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation, because the truth about God such as reason could discover would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. But man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation.”

When I read this, I was shocked even further. I thought that Thomas taught human reason and philosophy could arrive at a purely natural theology apart from revelation. But here, Thomas states that truth about God obtained by reason alone would only be attained by a few, and even if it was, it would be mixed with much error! Therefore, the more sure way of learning of God and His salvation above that of reason, is that of divine revelation. Thomas did teach that scripture is above and apart from reason!

It was therefore necessary that, besides the philosophical sciences discovered by reason there should be a sacred science obtained through revelation.”

Now of course, Thomas clearly holds that philosophy is important, and I am currently wrestling with my lack of training or understanding of philosophy and logic, which I am coming to see more and more seriously hinders my full understanding of God and Scripture. The older I get, the more I see that I had imbibed what is called Biblicism from my reformed discipleship, and not a true understanding and practice of the concept of Sola Scriptura. I am still wrestling with this, but I’ll leave you with a quote from R. Scott Clark:

Under the influence of Anabaptist radicalism, which swept across and transformed American evangelicalism in the 19th century (the causes of which are the subject of another post) led it away from the Reformation understanding of sola Scriptura to a different doctrine: biblicism or the attempt to understand Scripture by one’s self and by itself, i.e., in isolation from the history of the church and in isolation from the communion of the saints. In biblicism the interpreter, not Scripture, becomes sovereign. Historically biblicists, although they boast about their devotion to Scripture, are actually devoted to the supremacy of reason. As someone, somewhere said, “All heretics quote Scripture.” It is one thing to quote Scripture but it is another to read it well and to interpret it properly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s