Thursday, December 1, 2016

Thomas Aquinas - The Systematizer

The Christian faith was under attack due to the influx of Greek philosophy, particularly Neo-Platonism. This had come to Europe through Islam. (Islam later banned this belief.) Neo-Platonism held to the idea that God was unknown and unknowable, and the material world was by nature inferior for being material. Thomas Aquinas, who was a key theologian of  the Middle Ages, stood in opposition to this movement.  He started by writing against these teachings and went on to systematize the Christian faith to make it easier to explain and defend. In doing so, he adopted the philosophical approach of Aristotle as opposed to Plato.

I am in general in favor of Aquinas's purpose to defend and explain the Christian faith. But there are problems. The biggest one is that he systematized error. Aquinas was fundamentally a conservative. and explained Christianity as he found it. But the Christian faith as Aquinas found was corrupted and needed to be taken back to its roots and rethought. Aquinas, by explaining it, made it more plausible and less likely to be questioned. He also limited the amount of acceptable disagreement and made it harder for people not to buy the whole package.

Aquinas also furthered a highly intellectual approach to dealing with the things of God, known as Scholasticism. Now I believe there is a place for understanding the intellectual content of Christianity, but there is always the danger of taking something to an extreme. And while the Scholastics' tendencies have been exaggerated, it is very clear they did so. Particularly the latter Scholastics, who could fill pages with hair-breadth technical distinctions. Aristotle, who tended to analyze things to death and spend pages to prove the obvious, did not help in this. All this has of course produced a reaction (I agree with C. S. Lewis that reactions are always suspect), which wants to throw out the intellectual content of Christianity altogether.

Aquinas also helped to so enmesh Aristotle in Medieval theology that to challenge Aristotle was seen as challenging Christian thinking. So when Martin Luther and Galileo Galilee  questioned Aristotle, they were suspect. I think it is very dangerous to baptize any purely secular philosophical approach. We may need to use it to defend the faith to those outside, but we need to hold such things lightly, as they can and will change. Now while Aristotle does lead people too far to the intellectual, his most basic quality, as G. K. Chesterton points out, is common sense. But while common sense is a valuable quality, it too often means what makes sense to us. There are many points where what God does conflicts with what makes sense to us. The truth is that neither our intellectual ability nor our common sense can attain to the truth of God. We need a revelation from Him to tell us things we could not acquire for ourselves.          

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