Monday, January 11, 2010

The god of Aquinas and Aristotle: Reasonable but Unrelational?

I had the pleasure of sitting at Mike Reeves' feet last week listening to him teaching on Anselm and Aquinas, essentially from his new book The Breeze of the Centuries which covers the last three years of historical theology at our staff training conferences. Mike tries to hide his own feelings about these theologians as he introduces us to them. Whereas there is much in Athanasius to inspire, Anselm and Aquinas rather show us better how not to approach theology. It's an excellent book, with a second volume to follow (since this one finishes with Aquinas and a monk who found Aristotle's disciple (Aquinas) to give us darkness instead of light...

What's striking about Aquinas is his level of influence on the church (in 1998 John Paul II said that the angelic doctor gives the model of how to do theology) and the way that he's a reason-first Aristotlelian kind of theologian.

I was struck that his view of God begins with reasoning which attributes God should have, like unchanging, everlasting, firm foundation, unoriginate, uncreated etc. Arguing essentially for God as that than which nothing greater exists.... Eventually Aquinas talks about the God who reveals himself as Triune, in which Jesus is more the Father's conception of himself (a thought) than personally his beloved Son. It's all troublingly unpersonal and worringly familiar.

It's a pattern followed by most Systematic Theology following Aquinas that we begin with attributes of God rather than meeting the Father of the Son and the Son of the Father (as we might if we followed Athanasisus). Even the mighty Wayne Grudem does this...

I've been reminded that reason only really gets us to a distant divine, whereas revelation gets us to our relational, personal God - the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit who love one another and overflow in love to catch us up into fellowship with themselves. That's not to say we should be anti-reason, nor that we should view God's revelation as some kind of verbal-magic - when God speaks he speaks persuasively and clearly.

Christopher Ash was also with us, to warm our hearts from John's Gospel and he did so wonderfully by showing us just this kind of Trinitarian vision of salvation and life where God makes his home with us and catches us up into the fellowship of the Father and the Son, something truly beautiful. More on that another day.


  1. I love listening to Mike Reeves teach on church history. Can't wait to get my hands on the new book.

  2. Why doesn't he like Anselm's approach?

  3. I suspect its the Platonism. There was no wholesale dismissal of either, even if the overall sense of things was 'how not to do theology' clearly they had some clarity...

  4. ..interesting. I don't know that much about Anselm. But as far as I understood it he explicitly was not "reason-first" but faith then reason (see here for a good post on him). Also I once heard that it was characteristic for him to form theology through prayer (although I don't pretend to know how - I think it was GR Evans who said that). So far as I've ever come in contact with him I've always like Anselm!

    Platonism is a pretty broad term though isn't it? I don't really understand what people often mean by it, and I don't understand what it should really mean anyway. Was there a particular Platonist thing in Anselm that Mike didn't like?

  5. Interesting post :-) I look forward to reading the book.

  6. Dave, Thanks for introducing me to the teaching of Michael Reeves. He's one of my favorites.

  7. The wierd thing with Anselm was the way in his writings he attempts to prove everything about God without scripture and by reason alone, which basically ends up being a little reason forced along by his christian presuppositions...

    Not all bad by any means (neither Aquinas) but just a bit odd in places.

  8. I'm not sure either Anselm or Aquinas stand guilty as charged... In particular, they are certainly not 'reason over revelation' people; they are 'believing in order to understand' people. (Mostly. Aquinas loses it sometimes). And they have to be read within their cultural setting - they just don't address the concerns we would like them to.

    That's not to say they're good. Aquinas especially is not good. But I would suggest that the issue is less to do with reason and more to do with the nature of revelation. After all, they're both good scholastic catholics, with the result that they see revelation as being not only in Jesus/Bible but also in the church... which easily becomes 'also everywhere in the world'... which makes revelation just 'reason-plus' rather than something different and alien and incomprehensible without grace.

    But then, I'd guess that's the view of most evangelicals today!