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Evangelicals and Aquinas

Posted on February 26, 2018, by John Mortensen

We were pleased to hear from Scott Corbin about how much he likes his Aquinas Institute Summa volumes—and intrigued, since Scott is a student at a Southern Baptist seminary. We asked Scott to share some thoughts with us about how Thomas Aquinas appeals to more than just Roman Catholics.

How were you drawn to Thomas Aquinas as a Protestant Evangelical?

My first real engagement with Thomas’ work was in a course I took on Medieval theology in seminary. Prior to that, I had remedial knowledge of Thomas, but nothing substantive. This was the first time I engaged with Thomas, specifically the Summa, directly. Prior to that, I was indifferent about him. I knew that he was often a target in Reformation polemics, that Luther had serious misgivings, and that many of the theologians within the Reformed tradition—including John Calvin—shared Luther’s concerns.

What I found when reading Thomas was someone who was deeply rooted in the catholic tradition of theology and exegesis, utilizing Aristotle’s methodology as an ancillary help to clarify Christian doctrine. At the same time, I began to read more of the secondary literature on Thomas, as well as the history of his reception, and found some fascinating historical oddities. I began to understand that there was debate regarding Thomas’ development and his reception by later “Thomist” scholars, including Tomasso de Vio Cajetan, whom Luther debated at Augsburg in 1518.

At the same time, I also found that the Reformers reception of Thomas was eclectic. There was no denying Luther and his followers vitriolic animus against Thomas, but I also discovered other Reformed theologians like Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi who appropriated Thomas constructively in their work. Further, I discovered that even someone like Philip Melancthon, who raged against Thomas in the first edition of his Loci communes in 1521, modified and even appropriated thought from Thomas in later editions.

What all of this made me realize was that Thomas was being used and abused in ways beyond his work. It was only in engaging with the text of Aquinas that I began to see much that was consonant with my convictions as a Protestant Evangelical.

One would think that Thomas Aquinas would be a Roman Catholic’s author, but you’re finding other evangelicals are drawn to Thomas. Why is that?

Thomas’ thought is so rich and varied that there are seemingly endless ways that he can be incorporated. However, I’ve noticed that various Evangelicals are drawn to him for various ways. Some see him primarily as a philosopher who can help them think about the relation between faith and reason. Others see him as a constructive, orthodox theologian able to help reason through issues regarding the doctrine of God, Christology, and Trinity, especially after the abuse that such richly metaphysical doctrines have undergone in modern theology.

Often, either due to a naïve biblicism or ignorance of history, Evangelicals have a difficult time understanding historic debates regarding the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. They have a hard time reasoning through these things because they can’t just point to a text and say, “That settles it.” Theologians like Thomas help to make sense of the issues in all of their metaphysical resonance. For the uninitiated, reading Thomas is by no means a breeze, but once one is familiar with his style and terms, it’s very profitable.

Who are some of the most notable theologians who incorporated elements of Thomas’s theology into their constructive work?

Historically, as I mentioned above, Reformed theologians like Martin Bucer, Jerome Zanchi and Peter Martyr Vermigli were trained in Thomas’ theology. Notably, Zanchi incorporates elements of Thomas in his doctrine of God, while Vermigli positively mentions Thomas in his discussion on predestination.

In addition, you see other theologians incorporating Thomas in the post-Reformation period. For example, John Owen, to whom most Evangelicals are drawn because of his work on sanctification, utilizes elements of Thomism in his discussion of the theological virtues and infused habits for the Christian who has been justified by faith alone. In addition, Owen’s work on the atonement, what is called “particular redemption,” uses the simplicity of God as an operating principle. For Owen, the doctrine of particular redemption is intimately connected to God’s simplicity—a category he at least shared with Thomas.

Finally, Francis Turretin, whose Institutio was the theological textbook for Reformed theologians like Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield associated with the Princeton school in the 19th century, defines the study of theology in a way that is strikingly similar to Thomas: theology is a study of God, who is both the subject and object of theology, and all His works.

Where have you found Thomas most helpful?

I’ve found Thomas to be most helpful in his doctrine of God and in his Christology. I must admit here that I’ve also been helped greatly by two Dominican theologians, Gilles Emery, OP and Thomas Joseph White, OP, in seeing Thomas’ lucidity on these points. I am convinced that Emery’s little book on the Trinity, published by the Catholic University of America, is the single best introduction to the doctrine. It’s the book that I recommend when people ask me for one book on the Trinity.

In addition, Emery’s larger book Summa’s treatment of the Trinity, The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, has helped me immensely in understanding the grammar and logic behind the questions regarding processions, relations, and notional acts in the Prima Pars.

Thomas Joseph White’s latest book The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Christology, also published by the Catholic University of America, has been an exhilarating read for me as someone who has wrestled with the work of theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth. The strength of White’s book for me has been putting the actual text of Aquinas on Christology in conversation with the critiques of those like Barth. Plus, a few quibbles aside, I think the majority of what White brings to the table is in harmony with a confessing Evangelical like myself.

Another area where he is helpful, and has contemporary relevance, is regarding ethics, specifically sexual ethics. Many Evangelicals have found the work of Roman Catholic philosophers and ethicists a great help in understanding natural law and the importance of sexual differentiation in marriage. On this point, Roman Catholics and a great number of Evangelicals are cobelligerents.

Why should evangelicals read Thomas Aquinas?

St. Augustine writes in De trinitate that “it is useful that many persons should write many books in diverse styles but not in diverse faith, even with regard to the same questions, that the matter itself may reach the greatest number.” St. Thomas’ contribution to Christian theology is one more “diverse style” in which to think about the God of the Christian faith.

While the differences among Roman Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals certainly exist, and ought not be minimized in the name of a soft ecumenism, it still remains the case that there is much between us that is shared. Evangelicals should read Aquinas for his erudition and clarity of thought, but they should also read him for the way in which he reasons deeply in faith. They should read him for the way in which he asks and frames questions in a way that is deeply distant—but deeply helpful—in order to help solve contemporary issues.

But mostly, they should read him for the way in which he brings all sorts of resources to the table, both Christian and non-Christian, to honor and confess the blessed God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Scott Corbin is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Jessi live in Nashville, TN with their two children. You can follow Scott on Twitter or read more on his blog.