Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Reformed Orthodox were anti-Thomist in their epistemology

One of the main problems with the Thomist metaphysic is the Thomist epistemology.

Edward Feser begins his work “Scholastic Metaphysics” with what he calls “a basic philosophical truth, which is that metaphysics is prior to epistemology” (pg 27). But why is this the case? He doesn’t say. “Metaphysics” has been roughly defined as “what there is” or “what really exists” (Michael Rea, London UK and New York, NY: Routledge Publishing, 2014, pg 29). How can we understand metaphysics if we don’t know how we understand and precisely what it is that we are trying to understand?

John Frame, in his “History of Western Philosophy and Theology” (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015) writes that “metaphysics, epistemology, and value theory (ethics) are not independent of one another and influence each other”, and that “one type of epistemology will lead to one kind of metaphysics, another to another kind”.

He also cites Aquinas (who cites Aristotle) from his early work “Being and Essence” to the effect that “a small error at the outset ends by being great” (pgs. 146, 154).

That is precisely the complaint against Aquinas’s work, which create in his own thinking, and later in Roman Catholicism, the enormous distances we see between those systems and biblical and historical Christianity (of which the Reformation is a part).

While Aquinas was brilliant and enormously prolific, he makes errors at the beginning of his thinking that take things far afield of Scripture. Frame allows that “the influence of Scripture on his discussion is apparent” (151), but that, “in the dimension of natural reason”, he “seeks to reason apart from divine revelation”. This leads to errors – one of which involves his “nature-grace distinction”, but the larger error is “a foundation established in the realm of natural reason without revelation”.

This method is contrary to earlier Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Anselm, whose method rather was “I believe that I might understand”. It was, in the words of Van Til (citing Bavinck), “dogmatics must live by one principium only” – one foundation, being that of Scripture.

And yet, the whole dogmatic body of writings from Aquinas have their foundation in “natural reason”.

In beginning with “natural reason” instead of Scripture, are there any limits to our ability to understand? If we proceed along the lines of thinking “we have the ability fully to understand”, without actually having that ability, do we make fools of ourselves?

Aquinas’s Epistemology as a “Development”

But Aquinas’s epistemology was shaped by the Roman Catholic notion that man’s relationship with God was merely “wounded”, and that his intellect and will were still enabled to function in spite of the effects of sin.

One writer cashes out the subtle but distinct differences between Augustine and Aquinas:

What, then, are the effects of original sin upon the soul? To understand Augustine's thought on the effects of original sin on the soul, one must first understand his thought on the structure of the soul itself. Augustine finds that the will holds a sort of primacy among the parts of the soul. It alone makes the soul's affections right and wrong. He writes that, “the character of the human will is of moment; because if it is wrong, these motions of the soul will be wrong, but if it is right, they will not merely be blameless, but even praiseworthy, For the will is in them all [the affections]'' (City of God XIV.6; Fathers of the Church).

In fact, Augustine would go as far as to say that none of the soul's affections “is in anything else than the will'' (Ibid.; Fathers of the Church). It is precisely because the will has such precedence in the soul, that Augustine finds that the will is the root of all sin. He notes that “no sin is committed save by that desire or will by which we desire” (Ibid. XIV.4; Fathers of the Church). Thus, since the will is where sin is committed, it is precisely the will where the primary guilt and consequence of original sin lies.

How, then, did Adam's sin affect his will? Augustine finds that his will was corrupt even before his sin, since “the first evil will... preceded all man's evil acts” (Ibid. XIV.11; Fathers of the Church). He notes that, “Our first parents fell into open disobedience because they were already secretly corrupted; for the evil act had never been done had not the evil will preceded it” (Ibid. XIV.13; Fathers of the Church). But how did the will undergo this change?

Augustine finds that this change came from pride, or the “craving for undue exaltation” (Ibid.; Fathers of the Church). He writes, “this is undue exaltation, when the soul abandons Him to whom it ought to cleave as its end, and becomes a kind of end to itself” (Ibid.; Fathers of the Church). Thus, even before he ate the apple, Adam had already turned from God and corrupted his will. It is this corrupted will, which Adam created for himself by choosing himself over God, that is inherited by all of humanity.

Thus, “we are not able to do justly and fulfill the law of righteousness in every part thereof” through our fallen will alone (On the Merits II.5; Fathers of the Church). God's help is required, according to Augustine, for the will to once again be properly aligned with God's.

Thomas Aquinas also accords a sort of primacy to the will, at least over most of the other powers of the soul. Although he finds “the intellect is nobler than the will” (Summa Theologica Ia.82.3; New Advent), the effect of original sin on the will is much more substantial than its effect on the intellect. In fact, Aquinas finds that original sin infects will before all other powers. Citing Anselm of Canterbury, he notes that, “Original justice has a prior relation to the will, because it is ‘rectitude of the will’... Therefore original sin, which is opposed to it, also has a prior relation to the will” (Ibid. IaIIae.83.3; cf. The Virginal Conception III; New Advent).

Aquinas also notes that since, “the whole order of original justice consists in man's will being subject to God...Accordingly, the privation of original justice, whereby the will was made subject to God, is the formal element in original sin” (Ibid. Ia.IIae.82.3; New Advent). Though the corruption of the will is not in itself the formal element of original sin, the will was related in a special way to original justice, and thus is affected in a special way by original sin. This is why Aquinas finds that original sin involves the “inclination of the soul to act...It must therefore regard first of all that power in which is seated the first inclination to commit sin, and this is the will” (Ibid.; New Advent).

Thus far, Aquinas' view of the will and original sin is almost perfectly Augustinian -- although Thomas accords a primacy to the intellect in general, it is the will that holds this primacy in relation to sin. As one looks more carefully, this synthesis begins to break down. Aquinas writes that there is “the good of the natural inclination...and this is diminished by sin” (Ibid. Ia.IIae.85.4; New Advent).

Note his language carefully -- the natural inclination to will good is diminished, “but is not entirely destroyed'' (Ibid.; New Advent). Though he is speaking of sin generally, and not of original sin in particular, the fact that this corruption of the will is not complete, seems to stand in contrast with Augustine's rather pessimistic assessment of the fallen human will.

Also, Aquinas does not hold the Augustinian position that “no sin is committed save by ...[the] will'' (City of God XIV.4; Fathers of the Church). He finds that original sin is a sin of nature, rather than a sin of the will. Though original sin is a sin of the will of Adam, it is not a sin of his descendants “except inasmuch as this person [his descendant] receives his nature from his first parent, for which reason it is called the `sin of nature'' (Summa Theologica IaIIae.81.1; New Advent).

Since, “the soul is the form and nature of the body, in respect of its essence and not in respect of its powers...the soul is the subject of original sin chiefly in respect to essence'' (Ibid. IaIIae.83.2; New Advent). Thus for Aquinas, the primary effect of original sin is in the nature of soul itself, and the effects on the powers of the soul (which include the will) are secondary.

Gregg Allison referred to this “constitutive and irreversible link between nature and grace” which fails to include sin as one of the primary components of man’s dilemma.

This “development” between the time of Augustine and Aquinas cashes out to the fact that the human intellect does have the ability to come to basically an infallible (“the intellect cannot err”) understanding of what it is studying (and in the case of metaphysics, it posits that this understanding of God is without error).

“The human intellect does not acquire perfect knowledge by the first act of apprehension; but it first apprehends something about its object, such as its quiddity (“that” it exists), and this is its first and proper object; and then it understands the properties, accidents, and the various relations of the essence. Thus it necessarily compares one thing with another by composition or division; and from one composition and division it proceeds to another, which is the process of reasoning” (I a II ae 85.5).

In the next article, he holds that “the intellect cannot err, as in the case of first principles from which arises infallible truth in the certitude of scientific conclusions (I a II ae 85.6). It may be “accidentally deceived”, but because “the intellect is a faculty that is independent of an organ”, “we cannot be deceived unless, indeed, we understand nothing whatever about them, as it is said (by Aristotle) Metaph. Ix Did. Viii, 10).

Augustine stopped short of the notion that “we cannot be deceived”, and later, Luther, Calvin, and the Reformed Orthodox followed this line of thinking. But Aquinas’s adoption of Aristotle’s “we cannot be deceived” was a particular “development” that was a great enabler of the entire Roman Catholic behemoth as it existed at Trent and at Vatican I (for example).

Beyond this distinction, Rome developed the concept that that “Divine Revelation” not only has been “transmitted through two sources” (“Scripture and tradition”), but Aquinas enables them to up the ante, to say that “tradition” really is “Living Tradition”, and “Living Tradition” (by vote of the bishops and the imprimatur of the pope) has the ability to supersede what the Scriptures actually say.

It is by this method that the structures of the New Testament church were subsumed under later “developments” such as the monarchical bishop, the papacy, all the Roman sacraments, Roman “canon law” (itself based deeply in the false Isidore Decretals). Aquinas himself wrote with many of these false ideas firmly in mind. He was a smart guy, but “garbage in, garbage out”. And as a Medieval writer, he himself relied heavily on “garbage”.

John Frame rightly points out that “when Aquinas turns from discussions of God’s existence and simplicity to discussions of the traditional divine attributes, the influence of Scripture on his discussion is apparent. But he never suggests a role for Scripture in his philosophical epistemology (151).

The Reformed Orthodox Recognize This Failing

This is where today’s Reformed “would-be-thinkers-who-embrace-Thomism” miss the boat. Thinking that “right reason” can come to correct conclusions about God.

The Reformed Orthodox were much more biblical in their wisdom, and much better prepared to be careful with other Thomistic thinking. They prefaced their metaphysics with a much more Biblical epistemology. That epistemology happened to be Scotist. What Follows Is From Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., pp. 224–225). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

After Junius’ use of the distinction, it passes into the doctrinal system in the works of such theologians as Polanus, Scharpius, Walaeus, and Heidanus. In these systems a definite limit is set upon human inquiry into the Godhead and a principle of accommodation is utilized to explain the relationship between the true theology known to man and the divine self-knowledge. Thus, the distinction is adapted to an insight present from the very beginning in Reformed theology—that the finite (and sinful) mind of man is incapable of grasping the fullness of divine truth.

A similar epistemology characterizes the other Reformed systems of the period, although many—Perkins, Ames, Hommius, Trelcatius, Downham—do not utilize these scholastic terms. The theology of Lutheran orthodoxy, similarly, developed massive and carefully enunciated prolegomena. Beginning with the great Loci theologici of Johann Gerhard (1610), the classification of theology provided by Junius carries over into the Lutheran scholastic systems, paralleling the development of the Reformed.

We find here, moreover, a substantial agreement concerning the forms of theology and their relationships, the sole exception being the content and extent of the theology of Christ, the so-called theologia unionis, where christological concerns raised a major point of debate between the Reformed and the Lutherans.

This means that although the early orthodox discussion of the nature of theology was not highly original either in its terminology or in its content it was, formally, a radical departure from the patterns of sixteenth-century theology and an equally radical return to the scholastic mold of earlier centuries. The change seems to have been accomplished suddenly, over the space of a decade or so. In the last quarter of the sixteenth century we see only the beginnings of the use of such distinctions in systematic theological works, while in the first quarter of the seventeenth century their use seems to be taken for granted.

Protestant school-theology had come of age and the complex, technical vocabulary of scholasticism had become legitimate in Protestant circles. The work of adapting the old system to new insights had begun in earnest. Change is less apparent in the doctrines of the Trinity, the Person of Christ, and predestination, where the technical vocabulary of essence, nature, person, subsistence, and cause had been in use throughout the sixteenth century.

In the doctrines of theology and of faith, however, the use of such terms as theologia archetypa, theologia ectypa, habitus, actus, and so forth marks a new point of departure—as does the technical analysis of system itself and of the phenomenon of faith that are represented by these loci.

There is one significant difference between the Scotist use of distinctions between theologia in se aut divina and theologia nostra and the Reformed orthodox use of the distinction between theologia archetypa and the types of theology classed under the term theologia ectypa.

Scotus develops these distinctions because of new insight into the epistemological problems involved in writing theology. Although the soteriological necessity of revelation is not lost to him, his emphasis falls squarely on the problem of knowledge.

The Reformed orthodox clearly shift ground. The basic epistemological problem remains and the sense of a drastic limitation of human knowledge concerning God is everywhere apparent in their prolegomena. But in the work of theologians like Polanus and Scharpius a new dimension receives emphasis. The epistemological problem develops both out of the relation of revelation and reason, theology and philosophy, and out of the soteriological issue: man post lapsum needs revelation not only because of his limited natural capabilities but because of spiritual blindness caused by sin. The Scotist epistemological distinctions are now conditioned by Reformed anthropology.

This “Reformed anthropology” takes into account the role of sin in man’s dilemma, especially, as well as the notion that man’s “natural reason” must follow Revelation, and not be a foundation for it.

The best answer that the ”Reformed Thomists” seemed to be able to give was “Oh, we use reason as well. Yes, Thomas used reason. But what is the proper role of reason? There is a reason why theological prolegomena represents the real “First Things”.

In his “Scholastic Metaphysics”, Edward Feser just simply throws away four hundred years’-worth of human thought as if it never existed. He thinks that building up a thought-system (Aristotelian metaphysics) that was designed to address challenges that ancient Greek philosophers had 2500 years ago, somehow will enable 21st century Christian thinkers to address the problems of our own day.

The Reformed Orthodox thought otherwise:

It is also quite clear that the scholastic distinctions between theologia archetypa and theologia ectypa with strong emphasis laid on the limited and accommodated (though nevertheless true) character of the theologia viatorum draw far more heavily upon a Scotist paradigm of the relation of revelation to theology and to human reason than upon a Thomistic model. This judgment is confirmed both in the locus de Scriptura, where the necessity of revelation is strongly asserted, and in the locus de Deo, where the will is invariably given priority over the justice and goodness of God—even by a reputed Thomist like Zanchi (Muller, PRRD, Vol 1, pg. 267).


  1. There's really a lot to address here, and I'm sure Feser will have fun with it if he finds the time. But, there are a few matters that could be tackled in a comment:

    1. You begin this polemic by casting aspersions on the idea that metaphysics is prior to epistemology even though your position, as a reformed thinker, is that "what exists" according to Christianity -- such as God's existence and the noetic effects of sin -- ought to be taken for granted in sound epistemology. So, despite what you say, what you in fact do is prioritize metaphysics over epistemology.

    2. And in this vein of inconsistent practices, despite what some have said, reformed epistemology flat out ignores the difference between demonstrating that a first principle is true and demonstrating that something is a first principle. Reason forbids the former but requires the latter. The problem here is that a basic belief that Christianity is true is not equivalent to a basic belief that it is a first principle that Christianity is true. The reformed epistemologist prevaricates when she suggests she has no epistemic duty to demonstrate that it is a first principle that Christianity is true, even if it in fact is!

    3. You seem to think that it would be ruinous for Christianity if we were to rely on natural reasoning in order to establish things like the preambula fidei. I agree. But, as the above points illustrate, the correct inference is: so much the worse for Christianity, not so much the worse for natural reasoning.

    1. Steven Dillon --

      1. The metaphysic that is prioritized is that which is discernable in the Scriptures.

      2. I'm not even headed toward Plantinga's "Reformed epistemology". I'm talking primarily to Reformed believers about Reformed Orthodoxy, the period of time from about 1600 to 1700, at a time when the Reformed were much more aware of the philosophies of the day.

      3. Ruinous, in the way that Roman Catholicism has disfigured itself compared with Reformed and Biblical Christianity. I'm writing for Reformed believers and evangelicals. So "natural reasoning" may feel free to go on in whatever direction it cares to go.