Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts:  Part 2 of a Review of J.V. Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics

So what exactly is Van Til’s beef with Aquinas?  First, there is the issue of Aquinas’s claims about Aristotle contradicting the biblical teaching about man’s depravity.   That a pagan like Aristotle, who, according to the Bible, hates God, suppresses natural revelation about God, and worships idols rather than the true God (Rom. 1:18-32, 8:7; Col. 1:21; Eph. 4:18), would develop and promote a rigorous proof of the existence of the true God is something that should be unexpected, if not completely ruled out of the realm of possibility.  Second, Van Til argues that when Aristotle’s philosophy is closely examined, along with Aquinas’s use of that philosophy, we find teachings that are anti-Christian concerning the nature of God and the general nature of reality.  To explain this, let’s start with a statement by Aquinas on the issue:  “But there are some truths which the natural reason also is able to reach. Such are that God exists, that He is one, and the like. In fact, such truths about God have been proved demonstratively by the philosophers, guided by the light of the natural reason.”[1]  Van Til argues that the oneness of God as conceived by Aristotle logically excludes the Christian God.  Aquinas has taken a superficial similarity between the oneness of Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover and the oneness of the biblical God and has failed to realize the contradiction between how each approach understands that oneness.

The Greek view of reality was based on a tension between the One (unity, stasis, being) and the Many (diversity, change, matter).  Heraclitus claimed that unity is an illusion and affirmed that reality is all change.  As Plato reported, Heraclitus said that “everything flows, nothing stands still.”  As his view is often expressed, although this is not an exact quote, “It is not possible for a man to step into the same river twice, because it is not the same river and not the same man.”  Parmenides claimed in his poem “On Nature” that diversity is an illusion and affirmed that all reality is one:  “what is, is uncreated and indestructible, alone, complete, immovable and without end.”  Although Aristotle’s emphasis was more on diversity and Plato’s emphasis was more on unity, both Aristotle and Plato tried to accommodate the views of Heraclitus and Parmenides by saying that matter derives from non-being and is the source of diversity, and Being is the source of unity, and between non-being and Being is the realm of Becoming, where matter and Being combine, where humans live.  This view of reality is often referred to as the Great Chain of Being.[2]

Trying to work Christianity into the Greek view would mean that the unity of Parmenides is equated with God.  But that whole Greek scheme of reality is contrary to the biblical view of God and creation.  The unity of God in terms of the Greek view of reality is a blank unity.  Van Til says, “If there is unity it must then be sought by the process of abstraction from an ultimately existing plurality.  Such a unity will be an empty and lifeless unity.  It is such a unity as we find in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.  Aristotle’s ‘God’ is a principle, not a person.”[3]  The biblical God is triune, not a blank unity abstracted from all diversity.  In contrast with the Greek view and other non-Christian views of reality, Van Til describes the biblical nature of God as “the ontological Trinity,” the “concrete universal,” in which “the one and the many are equally ultimate.”[4]  The persons of the Trinity are not three separate gods, so that the many is more ultimate than unity, nor are the three persons merely nominal distinctions in God, so that God’s unity excludes plurality.  The biblical God is the source of both matter and the universal concepts that apply to matter.  Matter does not arise from non-being.  Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover did not create the world; it does not even know the world.  As Van Til puts it, “Aristotle’s god [is] a god who did not create the world, who does not know the world, who does not know ‘himself’ because ‘he’ is no self. ‘He’ is an ‘it,’ an abstract principle of all-absorbing rationality.”[5]  Van Til says about the Greek view of unity and Rome’s appeal to it:

God is one God, that is, God is one god so long as he, or it, is thought of as an abstract principle of unity which stands correlatively over against an equally abstract world of pure potentiality. The God of natural theology, therefore, is both unknown and unknowable by man so long as he differs from man. Moreover, this God is unknown and unknowable to himself because he is no self.  This is the kind of god that comes out of Rome’s natural theology.[6]

The problem that Van Til has with Aquinas is not, contrary to John Frame, that Aquinas proved too few of the attributes of God to consider that god to be the biblical God.[7]  The problem is that the Thomistic appeal to the Greek view of the One and the Many excludes the Christian God.  Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover maintains its unity only if all diversity is excluded from it.  As Van Til puts it, “The one God of Aristotle retains its oneness only if kept in abstraction from the world.”[8]  The Unmoved Mover could never be Triune.  The problem is not, contrary to Aquinas, that creation with a beginning is a logical possibility along with an eternal material world, so that it is not against reason but above reason to believe in a beginning to creation.  Rather, the problem is that the Aquinas’s use of Aristotle excludes creation with a beginning.  An impersonal, abstract principle of unity could not decide to create a world of matter.  It could not cause anything.[9]  The abstraction can have no thoughts with content.  It is a pure, unchanging emptiness – a blank.  For matter to exist in terms of the Greek Form-Matter scheme of reality, matter can only have independent and eternal existence.

Does Fesko refute any of this?  No, he never even addresses these arguments.  He is unaware of Van Til’s real arguments against Aquinas.  He thinks that Van Til’s problem is simply that Christians should never borrow ideas from non-Christians.  Van Til’s real position is the more reasonable one that Christians should not borrow anti-Christian ideas from non-Christians.   Van Til has no problem with Christians borrowing good ideas from Aristotle or any other pagan:

It should be carefully noted that our criticism of this procedure does not imply that we hold it to be wrong for the Christian church to make formal use of the categories of thought discovered by Aristotle or any other  thinker.  On the contrary, we believe that in the Providence of God, Aristotle was raised up of God so that he might serve the church of God by laying at its feet the measures of his brilliant intellect.  When Solomon built the temple of God he was instructed to make use of the peculiar skill and the peculiar gifts of the pagan nation that was his neighbor.[10]

On a couple of pages Fesko references Van Til’s criticisms of Aquinas in A Christian Theory of Knowledge.  He mentions Van Til’s criticism of Aquinas on the issue of remotion (88), and he accurately summarizes Van Til’s criticism of Aquinas as, “he combines pagan Greek philosophy with his Christian theology, although they are ultimately incompatible” (89).  But then Fesko gets wrong why Van Til thought that the two are incompatible.  It’s not because Van Til denies that God can be known through reason.  Fesko says that Van Til rejects remotion because “this method does not account for the ‘self-attesting Christ speaking in the Scriptures.’”  As I’ll discuss in more depth in the next post, Fesko mistakenly thinks that Van Til means by this phrase that all knowledge comes from Scripture (216-18).  Consequently, Fesko interprets this phrase to be Van Til’s rejection of the claim that “some truths about God can be known by reason” (89).  Looking at the quote from Van Til in the immediate context should dispel that notion.   The full quote is, “On a Protestant basis the way of remotion or negation cannot be applied at all unless there first be a positive identification of God by himself.  Since men are sinners this positive way of identification must be by way of the self-attesting Christ speaking in the Scriptures.”[11]  Van Til is saying that, since sinners suppress the knowledge of God through nature (which includes, Van Til believes, knowledge of positive attributes of God), the Scriptures are necessary to clarify who God is in his positive attributes.  I provided numerous quotes in the last post showing that Van Til affirms natural revelation.  Here is one more:  “Natural revelation is perfectly clear. Men ought from it to know God and ought through it to see all other things as dependent on God.  But only he who looks at nature through the mirror of Scripture does understand natural revelation for what it is.”[12]  Van Til talks negatively about “natural reason” in his discussion of Aquinas, but he is talking about Aquinas adopting the ideas of the unregenerate that are expressions of their rebellion against God, as in “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him” (1 Cor. 2:14, NKJV).   Van Til is not condemning reason applied to nature in a proper way.  Fesko quotes Aquinas quoting Scripture to support the position that God can be known through reasoning about His creation, complaining that Van Til did not adequately interact with Aquinas’s text because he doesn’t pay attention to Aquinas quoting Scripture that supports knowing God through reasoning about His creation:  “Aquinas believes reason can discover God because the Bible says so” (90).  That’s all well and good, but according to Van Til, the problem is that Aquinas adopts unbiblical concepts in his reasoning about God.  Aquinas appealed to elements of Aristotle’s philosophy that exclude the Creator revealed in the Bible and also revealed by proper reasoning about God’s creation.

When Fesko concludes that “Aquinas believes that reason can discover God because the Bible says so” (90), Fesko cites a page from Van Til’s book The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought as proof that Van Til denied that Aquinas relied on the authority of Scripture.[13]  Van Til’s point on this page is not that Aquinas rejects citing the Bible to prove claims (Aquinas does that all the time; nobody could miss that), but that Aquinas held to a theory of knowledge that is inconsistent with the necessity and authority of Scripture.  Van Til’s position is not that Aquinas rejected everything Christian in favor of Aristotle, but that he was double-minded.  As Van Til puts it later in the same book, Thomas, the theologian, wants to defend the Triune Creator who communicates through an infallible Bible, while “Thomas, the philosopher” wants to view God and man in terms of the Greek scale of being, with an Unmoved Mover who does not know the world and could not communicate with the world.[14]  Van Til criticizes Aquinas’s empiricist theory of knowledge on the page that Fesko cites because it yields a vague, uncertain knowledge of God that is contrary to the inescapable, certain, and clear knowledge of God coming through nature that Paul teaches in Romans 1.  If Fesko wants to defend Aquinas against Van Til, he needs to defend Aquinas’s version of empiricism, but Fesko does not engage that issue.

Looking more closely at Van Til’s real issue with remotion that Fesko never discusses, Van Til argues that Aquinas’s appeal to remotion is an appeal to the Greek form-matter scheme:

The natural-supernatural theology of Roman Catholicism is the result of an attempt to fit the Christian framework of God-in-Christ and his relation to the world into the form-matter scheme of Aristotle. The transcendent God of the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas is attained by the method of remotion and is therefore relegated to the realm of the indeterminate.[15]

Here is how Aquinas himself describes the process of remotion:  “Now, in considering the divine substance, we should especially make use of the method of remotion.  For, by its immensity, the divine substance surpasses every form that our intellect reaches. Thus we are unable to apprehend it by knowing what it is.”[16] By remotion, Aquinas says that “we approach nearer to a knowledge of God according as through our intellect we are able to remove more and more things from Him.”[17]  In other words, we take features of the natural world that our intellect is able to grasp, and subtract any positive attributes.  It should be obvious that this leaves us with God as an empty concept.  As Aquinas puts it, by this method we cannot know “what it [God] is,” only that God is.  But the “that” – the concept of God – is empty.  Christians commonly use many descriptions of God that are negations of aspects of the material world like immortal (not mortal), invisible (not visible), and infinite (not finite).  But if all we have is negation and nothing positive about who God is, then “God” is an empty concept, and that’s what the method of remotion gives us.  If we negate the attribute of the natural world that it is existent, then we have non-existent.  And if we negate the attribute of the natural world that has force, then we have powerless.  But the God of the Bible is not non-existent and powerless.  As some philosophers have pointed out, if Being is an empty abstraction, then Being is equivalent to non-being.[18]  That’s what Greek categories give us in regard to the nature of God.

This method of knowing God is put in language even more clearly part of the Greek form-matter scheme in this passage from Aquinas:  “God is a supremely simple form, as was shown above (Question [3], Article [7]). . . .Reason cannot reach up to simple form, so as to know ‘what it is;’ but it can know ‘whether it is.’”[19]  Van Til is quick to point out that it is incoherent to claim that something exists without being able to say what it is.[20]  Aquinas’s method does not allow us to hold the position that reason tells us that God exists but special revelation tells us the content to God’s nature, because his method of appealing to reason only arrives at the concept of God by stripping any content from his nature.  God would not be the “supremely simple form” of Greek philosophy if He had any definite content to His nature.

Adopting the Greek form-matter scheme not only undermines the argument for God’s existence that He is the cause of motion in the material world.  It undermines every area of Christian theology when consistently applied.  As I explain in another essay, Van Til argues that Aristotle’s worldview undermines Christian doctrine in these key areas:[21]

  1. The Creator/creature distinction.
  2. A beginning to creation.
  3. Mankind’s fall from a state of perfection.
  4. Salvation at a point in history.
  5. The incarnation of Jesus as fully God and fully man.
  6. A finished revelation from God.
  7. Absolute ethical obligations.

Fesko acknowledges that Aquinas committed errors in his distinction between nature and grace with his appeal to a pre-Fall donum superadditum (superadded grace) (176-77).  Fesko, however, does not show awareness that Van Til argues that these errors are related to the form-matter scheme that Aquinas adopts from Greek philosophy.  Here is one example of Van Til’s statement on the issue:

Sin is what it is precisely because it is a negative ethical reaction to God’s inescapable presence.  Sin is not due to some slenderness of being, to some nearness to non-being, to some lack of supernatural grace; it is direct rejection of the known will of God. The sinner is a sinner by virtue of the suppression of the revelation of God within him. Only thus can the Protestant doctrine of sin as ethical alienation from his Creator rather than physical defect be maintained. Only thus can the fact that Christianity is ethical in character, rather than a means by which men are lifted up to a higher place in the scale of being, be maintained.[22]

Aquinas says that “in the state of perfect nature man needs a gratuitous strength superadded to natural strength for one reason, viz. in order to do and wish supernatural good.”[23]  This superadded grace was necessary for man’s higher faculties to control his lower, sensual faculties:  “This is clear also from the very rectitude of the primitive state, by virtue of which, while the soul remained subject to God, the lower faculties in man were subject to the higher, and were no impediment to their action.”[24]  But why did Adam need superadded grace in order for him make choices to obey God?  What was deficient in Adam’s will as created from the hand of God, before the Fall?  Did not God make everything very good?  Answer:  Aquinas sees Adam’s nature as deficient to live in obedience to God before the Fall because Aquinas tries to fit Christian morality into the alien scheme of the Greek scale of being.  As Van Til points out (even quoting the passage),[25] Aquinas defines sin as a lack of being, as demanded by the Greek scheme of reality:

Every being, as being, is good. . . .  No being can be spoken of as evil, formally as being, but only so far as it lacks being. . . .  As primary matter has only potential being, so it is only potentially good.  Although, according to the Platonists, primary matter may be said to be a non-being on account of the privation attaching to it, nevertheless, it does participate to a certain extent in goodness, viz. by its relation to, or aptitude for, goodness.[26]

Adam was a finite being, a mixture of non-being and Being.  If sin is a lack of being, then Adam was sinful merely because he was finite, which he was at the moment of his creation.  To get around this obviously anti-biblical position of Adam being sinful before the Fall, Aquinas had to add something to Adam beyond his created nature, and that something is the donum superadditum.  But this does not really solve the problem; it’s a façade to hide the problem.  As Van Til argues, the problem is Aquinas trying to make an ethical issue into a metaphysical issue in order to integrate Greek categories into the biblical worldview.  Aquinas redefines the ethical contrast between good and evil as a metaphysical contrast between the natural and the supernatural.  In terms of the Greek chain of being, redemption is a matter of the supernatural elevating the natural.  “Grace” comes to be understood as an infusion of a higher order of being.  With the biblical view, grace is ethical restoration.  Grace is an imputation of righteousness.  With the Greek view, redemption is a metaphysical issue; with the biblical view, redemption is a forensic, ethical issue.  Taken to its fullest, logically consistent extent, salvation as a process of rising up the scale of being cannot be achieved by a finite creature at a particular point in history.  Salvation is not fully realized until man becomes God, who alone is pure Being.

One last claim to address more fully is Fesko’s criticism that Van Til did not cite Aquinas’s work very often when he criticizes Aquinas, repeating John Frame’s criticism:  “Part of the problem of Van Til’s critique of Aquinas is the rarity of citation of primary sources” (88).[27]  If Fesko wanted to offer a responsible critique of Van Til’s criticisms of Aquinas, he could have spent a least a chapter quoting passages where Van Til quotes or cites Aquinas, and then giving a critique of how accurately Van Til has interpreted Aquinas.  I look forward to reading such a book or lengthy article in the future.  No Thomist has produced one yet.  Neither have “sympathetic” critics of Van Til on his treatment of Aquinas such as John Frame.  Fesko quotes only one passage where Van Til cites Aquinas.  This is the one on the issue of remotion that I dealt with above.  Fesko claims that Van Til “draws inaccurate conclusions” (88) from the passage by Aquinas.  But as I argued above, it is Fesko who does not realize what Aquinas is talking about in the passage, nor does Fesko understand what Van Til is criticizing Aquinas about.  Therefore whatever benefits readers would derive from Van Til citing Aquinas’s primary work more often, it would not prevent seminary professors who critique Van Til from being clueless interpreters of Van Til’s writings.  If Fesko had at least understood the criticism that Van Til is making of Aquinas regarding remotion, he could have made arguments and cited supporting authority on the issue of whether Van Til had understood Aquinas correctly.  That would have advanced the discussion.

It is not unreasonable to say that it would have been more helpful if Van Til had cited Aquinas’s writings more often, but the more important question is whether Van Til’s statements about Aquinas’s views are accurate.   Citations would help establish that Van Til is correctly characterizing Aquinas’s views, but the sparsity of citations should not significantly affect understanding the argument that Van Til makes against Aquinas, yet Fesko can’t even get that right.  Van Til often writes about Aquinas’s views without providing specific citation from Aquinas, but sometimes he references an earlier work where he provides those citations.[28]  He shouldn’t be required to provide detailed citation every time he addresses an issue that he has addressed previously.   Van Til extensively cites the works of Étienne Gilson, a Roman Catholic theologian who was Van Til contemporary.[29]  Did Gilson get Aquinas wrong?  Or did get Van Til misunderstand Gilson?  A full evaluation of Van Til’s criticisms of Roman Catholicism would have to address those questions.

In the next post, I’ll address Fesko’s claim that Van Til’s thinking was corrupted by idealist philosophy.

___________________________________________________________

[1]  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 1:3:2

[2]  Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (1936).

[3]  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 216.

[4]  Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (1955), pp. 41-42, 410-411; Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, pp. 76-77; Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, pp. 63-64.

[5]  Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Phillipsburg, NJ: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1969), p. 302.   Also see, Cornelius Van Til, The Intellectual Challenge of the Gospel (Phillipsburg, N.J.:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), p. 8.

[6]  Cornelius Van Til, The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1967), p. 19.

[7]  John Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1995), p. 183.  See my essay, “The Scope and Limits of Van Til’s Transcendental Argument:  A Response to John Frame,” http://www.christianciv.com/The_Scope_and_Limits_of_VTAG.pdf.

[8]  Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (1955), p. 238.

[9]  Aristotle taught that the Unmoved Mover “causes” motion in the world because the world loves, i.e. desires, the Unmoved Mover (Metaphysics XII, 7).  The power of motion is in the world, not the Unmoved Mover.

[10]  Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. 57.

[11]  Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 170.

[12]  Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, p.11.

[13]  Van TIl, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, p. 9.

[14]  Ibid., p. 96.

[15]  Van Til, The Case for Calvinism (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1979), p. 57. Also see Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, 73-105, 217-219; and Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, 169-175. Arvin Vos defends Aquinas from the charges brought against him by Protestants, and Van Til in particular, in his book Aquinas, Calvin &Contemporary Protestant Thought: A Critique of Protestant Views on the Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Washington, D.C.: Christian University Press, 1985).  However, Vos does not address Van Til’s criticisms of Aquinas as I describe them here.  Vos says over and over that Aquinas’s view is that nature and grace are complimentary, and he sees the only alternative as destroying nature in favor of grace (p. 144); but he never addresses Van Til’s argument that the Aristotelian idea of a scale of being is inconsistent with the Biblical view of nature and grace.

[16]  Thomas Aquinas, On the Truth of the Catholic Faith (Summa Contra Gentiles) tr. by Anton C. Pegis, Vol. 2 (Garden City: Hanover House, 1955),96 (1:14.2).Van Til quotes this passage in A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 169 and in his article “Nature and Scripture” in The Infallible Word, Ed. By N.B. Stonehouse and Paul Woolley, 2nded. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Co., 2002), p. 288.

[17]  Ibid.

[18]  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 116.

[19]  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 12,Article 12.

[20]  Van Til, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, pp. 84, 95, 99.

[21]  Michael H. Warren, Jr., “The Scope and Limits of Van Til’s Transcendental Argument: A Response to John Frame,” http://www.christianciv.com/The_Scope_and_Limits_of_VTAG.pdf.

[22]  Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 244 (emphasis in original), also see p. 213.  And see The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, pp. 98, 103; A Survey of Christian Epistemology, p. 67;  An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 255; Who do You say that I am?, pp. 47-48.

[23]  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part of the Second Part, “Treatise on Grace,” Q. 109. Art. 2.

[24]  Ibid., First Part, Q. 94, Art. 4.

[25]  Van TIl, The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, p. 104.

[26]  Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part, Q. 5, Art. 3.

[27]  Quoting Frame, Cornelius Van TIl, p. 356.

[28]  As in Defense of the Faith (1955, p. 256) and A Christian Theory of Knowledge (p. 291), where he references his essay in The Infallible Word, which includes citations (see pp. 288-90).

[29]  For example, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, pp.216ff; Who Do You Say that I Am?, pp. 41-44; The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, pp. 212-14; The Defense of the Faith (1955), 149ff.  Jacques Maritain is another Roman Catholic theologian he quotes extensively, e.g. The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, pp. 206-12.

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