Thomas Aquinas falls into that bucket of authors you know you should read at some point. (Augustine, Aristotle, and Foucault would fall into this same bucket.) But you hesitate because you feel like you’re wading into an abyss. My first experience with Aquinas’s Summa Theologica amounted to several hours of reading and feeling like I had not spent the past few hours reading. For such readers, this P&R series “Great Thinkers” will prove helpful because the books in this series bring to light key features of important thinkers and suggest ways for thinking through these features from a biblical and theological perspective. And all this is done in a fairly concise and accessible manner. So as a general—but not unqualified—endorsement, I recommend the books in this series.
Oliphint’s work is especially helpful for those interested in the important subject of epistemology. This cumbersome word may leave the impression that the subject is relevant only for heady Christians who have an innate interest in philosophical matters. This is not at all the case. As Oliphint suggests, developing an epistemology that is rooted and controlled by the Bible is critical not just for theologians but for “everyday” Christians. In the end, everyone is a theologian; therefore, it is imperative to get right a methodology for biblical and theological reflection that in itself is informed and shaped by Scripture. In this book, Oliphint not only asserts Aquinas’s failure to do so but also proposes what it means to have an operative Christian epistemology through his critique of Aquinas’s supposed commitment to the neutrality of natural reason and natural theology.
But I digress. First, some orienting comments. Given the parameters of the series, Oliphint’s treatment of Aquinas is brief, focused, and accessible. Because of the subject matter, some theological and philosophical jargon is necessary. But Oliphint provides a glossary that explains key terms and phrases (pp. 127–32). In this sense, the book accomplishes the goals established by the editors of the series (though it is admittedly still a challenging read). The book is divided into four chapters—Introduction, Foundation of Knowledge, Foundation of Existence, and Conclusion. The middle two comprise the bulk of Oliphint’s discussion, focusing on Aquinas’s epistemology and doctrine of God, specifically God’s existence and character. Finally, Oliphint’s overall negative assessment of Aquinas is clear. Plainly put, Aquinas is presented as an example of how not to do theology: “Whatever else is said … must take into account the methodological problems that underlie everything that Thomas wrote … the value of reading Thomas—which is significant in terms of its historical and theological impact—must always be measured against this initial, seminal, foundational, theological misstep” (p. 120, italics mine). At the risk of oversimplifying Oliphint’s analysis, his basic argument is that because Aquinas apparently got the first step wrong in a long mathematical equation, nothing else could be correct. At one point, Oliphint quotes Aquinas himself, “A small error at the beginning of something is a great one at the end,” and then comments: “An error in principium, however, is anything but small. It influences more or less everything else that is said from that point forward” (p. 119).
To more than a few readers, Oliphint’s critique will feel unduly harsh. To be sure, throughout his analysis he uses forceful language. When describing Aquinas’s concession to the “absolutes” of Greek philosophy, Oliphint writes, “he lost the Christian God altogether and was left with concepts just as useless as theirs” (p. 124). Similarly, he writes, “with respect to the ways in which Thomas sets forth the knowledge and character of God, confusion reigns” (p. 124). Even in his conclusion, he offers—at best—a qualified recommendation to read Aquinas’s writings: “there are elements of Thomas’s work that could be instructive and useful, at least from a historical perspective. Even so, every word and doctrine must be read through the grid of Thomas’s two ultimately incompatible principia—the neutrality of natural reason, on the one hand, and the truth of God’s revelation, on the other” (p. 126, italics mine; see also pp. 118–19).
Oliphint has done a great service in reminding us that no one is untouchable: even the greats were prone to error (sometimes, as Oliphint suggests, serious error). However, his sweeping and unambiguously negative assessment of Aquinas leaves the reader wondering: Is it possible that Aquinas really got everything wrong? That is, does one apparent error—even if it is on the foundational level—mean that good and helpful theological reflection is now impossible? Also, is it possible that so many have been so wrong about Aquinas? Given the pervasive and profound impact that Aquinas has had on many traditions and many great minds, it seems unlikely that Aquinas could be of such “little value” (p. 121). Given the goals of brevity and accessibility in this “Great Thinkers” series, generalizations are inevitable. But one wonders whether the overall tone and sweeping remarks could have been better qualified.
Oliphint does outline the basis for his conclusions. He points to Aquinas’s apparent disregard for more promising teachers of the Bible (e.g., John of Damascus); his neglect of careful biblical exegesis, especially as the primary means for knowing God; his low view of sin and its comprehensive impact on human beings; his overall lack of “biblical instincts”; most of all, his fateful decision “to try to synthesize ‘purely’ philosophical with theological principia” (pp. 121–24). Here, too, one wonders whether some qualification would have been helpful. To assert that Aquinas was negligent of careful biblical exegesis seems to disregard the fact that he wrote many insightful commentaries on both the Old and New Testaments. Many will, of course, question aspects of Aquinas’s hermeneutical approach and some, if not many, of his exegetical conclusions. But even a perusal of these commentaries portrays a man committed to careful and thoughtful engagement with God’s revelation. Moreover, his comments on various biblical texts (e.g., Romans 1) indicate that—not unlike the Westminster Confession—he understood and promoted a biblical view of human finitude and depravity. As a NT exegete, I have found many of Aquinas’s commentaries stimulating and insightful and rarely felt like I was “encountering” a negligent exegete. Perhaps a wider representation of Aquinas’s works might have led to a more moderate conclusion, namely that he exhibited tendencies suggestive of a low view of sin, an excessive dependence on human reason, and so forth.
In conclusion, this book “humanizes” Aquinas and is a timely reminder that careful thought must be given to what it means to have a consistent Christian epistemology when embarking on theological reflection. Moreover, Oliphint’s application of the presuppositional method to such a seminal thinker will help elucidate the methodology to all interested parties. Finally, this critical work will likely engender further discussion on what Aquinas “really” said. Despite the possible imbalances noted above, this book is a helpful challenge to consider Aquinas against the Westminster Confession of Faith.