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Thomas Aquinas

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
January 20, 2021 12:01 am

Thomas Aquinas

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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January 20, 2021 12:01 am

Thomas Aquinas was one of the most formidable thinkers the world has ever known. Today, R.C. Sproul introduces us to this great mind from church history.

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Where do we learn about God? Theologians have debated that question for centuries.

Now, here's where the controversy comes in. Christians have not argued that the Bible teaches the existence of God. That's clear, and you can learn the premise that God exists by reading the Bible. But the issue is, can you learn of the existence of God simply by studying nature? We're going to learn about a man who believed the answer to that question is yes. Welcome to Renewing Your Mind on this Wednesday.

I'm Lee Webb. He claimed that God can be discovered through the natural order of the universe. Let's discover how he came to that bold conclusion and why it matters.

Here's Dr. R.C. Sproul from his series, The Consequences of Ideas. We turn our attention today to certainly one of the most prodigious and formidable thinkers that the world has ever known, and I'm thinking of course of St. Thomas Aquinas. Thomas was born in the thirteenth century in the year 1224, presumably.

We're not exactly sure of that year, but he died in the year 1274 before his 50th birthday, so that he was 49 years old at the time of his death. And that in itself is astonishing when you think of the prodigious work that came from this titan of philosophical and theological thought. Affectionately, within the Roman Catholic Church, St. Thomas is called the doctor angelicus, or the angelic doctrine, and no single individual has done more to shape theology of the Roman Catholic Church than Thomas, although many Protestants also claim him as one of the fathers of the faith because so much of what he wrote and did happened before the disputes that arose in the sixteenth century. But the normal evangelical rap against St. Thomas Aquinas is that he was guilty of separating nature and grace. In fact, in the work of Francis Schaeffer, when he gave his overview, big picture analysis of the breakdown of thinking in modern times, he saw Aquinas as the chief culprit for dividing the spheres of knowledge and making an unnatural disjunction between nature and grace by separating them.

And I was a personal friend of Francis Schaeffer and a great admirer and respecter of him. But on this point, I strongly disagreed with him. And I think to understand Thomas Aquinas, we have to understand the issues he was facing in his day and the problems he was seeking to solve. And one of the things that we're not all that familiar with in the West is the development of Eastern thought and particularly Arabic thought.

We tend to think of the Renaissance as being strictly a Western phenomenon that began in Florence in the thirteenth century with the rediscovery of the ancient Greeks and so on. But that was already going on in Islamic philosophy. The great Islamic philosophers had already rediscovered the ancients.

And at the time of Aquinas, the great thinkers of the Arab philosophers, people like Averroes and Avicennas, had sought to construct a synthesis between Muslim theology and Aristotelian philosophy. And that's a study in and of itself. But one of the things that they came up with in their synthesis was called the double-truth theory. The double-truth theory. This is a very important idea in the history of theoretical thought. The double-truth theory basically said this, that something can be true in philosophy and false in religion at the same time. Or it can be true by faith but false in science at the same time.

Now let's translate that idea to contemporary categories. We see the raging controversy that goes on about human origins. Are we as human beings the product of a purposive act of divine creation? Or are we merely fortuitous cosmic accidents, grown-up germs that have spontaneously come out of a chance collision of atoms and so on? Obviously, we cannot both be purposefully created by a self-existent, eternal God and at the same time be cosmic accidents.

Those two concepts cannot be reconciled. But a double-truth thinker would say this, well, I'm a religious person, but I'm also a scientist. And so on Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I will believe in creation. And on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, I'll believe in man as a cosmic accident.

And on Sunday, I'll rest from the controversy. Do you see what's going on here is a separation or a disjunction between faith and reason, between philosophy and religion, between theology and science, where the two don't meet or ever overlap. Now it's precisely against that kind of thinking that St. Thomas Aquinas, who had been the illustrious student of Albert the Great, and who had been called by his student classmates while he was in school the dumb ox of Aquino, to which Albert the Great replied, this dumb ox is going to astonish the world with his brilliance. But in any case, it was against this kind of thinking that Aquinas was responding, because he realized that if you had that kind of disjunction between faith and reason and antithesis between science and religion, you would end up as an intellectual schizophrenic, and it would make truth impossible to reconcile. And so what he did was he said that there are certain truths that we learn from nature and other truths that we learn from grace.

And what he means by that is something like this. If you study nature, you can learn something about the circulatory system of the human body, but you can read the Bible all you want, and the Bible will not reveal to you the intricacies of the circulatory system of the human body or the molecular structure of a leaf. Or the molecular structure of a leaf. That you have to apply natural science and so on to empirical investigation to discover that sort of thing. So you get certain truths, truths that don't contradict the Scriptures or contradict special revelation, but you don't find that content in the Bible. You find other truths, according to Aquinas, that are revealed to us only in the Bible that you can't discover with a microscope or with a telescope. For example, God's plan of salvation.

You can't study that in a laboratory. You get that through the revelation of Scripture. So you have two sources of truth, grace and nature.

Now maybe the distinction, the words that he uses, are a little bit unfortunate and misleading because one thing that Thomas did not believe in was that nature functions or exists independent from God. But what he has in view here is more like the distinction we make in theology between special revelation and general revelation. Special revelation is that revelation that comes to us in Scripture, and general revelation is that which comes through nature, through the created order. The heavens declare the glory of God.

The firmament shows its handiwork and so on. But both of those are truths that come from God. Paul, for example, in the first chapter of Romans, where he is engaged in the writing of special revelation, says that in addition to that revelation that comes in Scripture, there is the revelation that God gives of Himself in and through nature, or the things that are made. So that the Bible itself says there's another source of revelation, namely nature, that is also God's revelation.

Now the point is this. Thomas Aquinas distinguished between nature and grace. He distinguished between faith and reason, between philosophy and science, and so on. But as I try to teach my students in the seminary, one of the most important distinctions you will ever learn, and keep in mind that if it's the prerogative of the woman to change her mind, it is the prerogative of the theologian to make fine distinctions.

That's our stock and trade. But one of the most important distinctions you will ever learn is the distinction between a distinction and a separation. If I distinguish your body from your soul, I bring no harm to you.

If I separate your body from your soul, I've killed you, so that there is a huge difference between distinguishing and separating. Now, Thomas certainly distinguished between nature and grace, but not for the purpose of separating them, but for the purpose of showing their ultimate unity. Because even as Augustine had said earlier that the Christian ought to learn about as many things as he possibly can because he was convinced that all truth is God's truth and all truth that is truly true meets at the top, so Aquinas believed that what God reveals in nature will never contradict what He reveals in Scripture, so that there is a fundamental harmony between these two sources of knowledge. Now, so far so good with Aquinas, and then in addition to these two sources, he then added another category, and the category he called the Articulus Mixtus, and we'll put that in English, the mixed articles. And the mixed articles, according to Aquinas, are those truths that can be learned either from Scripture or from nature.

Now, here's where the controversy comes in. Christians have not argued that the Bible teaches the existence of God. That's clear, and you can learn the premise that God exists by reading the Bible. But the issue is, can you learn of the existence of God simply by studying nature? That is, is there such a thing as natural theology?

Natural theology has been a bug bear among 20th-century theologians, and there has been great antipathy expressed against natural theology. Now, natural revelation refers to God's self-disclosure in the realm of nature. Natural revelation is something God does.

He's the revealer. Natural theology is something we do. Namely, the question is this. If nature reveals God, do we learn anything from that revelation? If we learn anything from that revelation, if we gain any knowledge of God from that natural revelation, then what do we have?

We have natural theology, because all the word theology means is the knowledge of God. Now, you may argue forever about the scope of that knowledge, the extent of that knowledge, the accuracy of that knowledge, and all the other debates that focus on this question, but that there is natural knowledge of God, I think, couldn't be any more manifest than what Paul teaches in the first chapter of Romans. And when Thomas Aquinas was talking about his concept of natural theology, he said, you know, we have to learn from God.

We have to learn from God. And so, he did it not simply on a speculative basis of reasoning, but he did it exegetically. He turned the attention of his readers to Paul's teaching in the first chapter of Romans to justify this. But then, of course, what he's most known for in the Western world is not his exposition of the Bible, but for his rational arguments for the Bible. He's trying to say, well, if nature reveals that God is, how does that happen?

How do we understand a knowledge of God simply by looking at creation? And he set forth five proofs for the existence of God wherein he was reasoning from the created world back to the first cause or the creator. Now, again, many of his critics say that to argue for God cosmologically, that is from the cosmos back to the creator of the cosmos, is to get you no further than Aristotle's first cause, his uncaused cause. I always say to those critics, be careful here because, you know, these people who say, well, the God of the philosophers is not the God of Christianity because our God is so much more than a first cause. And I say, yes, He is so much more than a first cause, but He is not less than the first cause.

And the big philosophical issue of our time is the question of what is the first cause. And if we roll over and play dead to the skeptic or the critic of historic Judeo-Christianity and are willing to negotiate God's being the creator and God's being the first cause, we're in serious trouble. That's one of the reasons, incidentally, why even in secular universities that are hostile toward historic Christianity today, academic integrity demands that Thomas Aquinas be studied. Nobody can study the history of philosophy without taking this man very, very seriously. And the chief reason for that is because of his formidable arguing for the existence of God. And his arguments created the classical synthesis and dominated the intellectual scene for hundreds and hundreds of years so that even secular scientists and philosophers hardly dared to question the existence of God because to do so would be to make themselves look as if they weren't very intelligent because St. Thomas had done such a job on them previously. Now, to understand how that fell apart, we have to wait until we get to the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant. But again, one of the important things that Aquinas developed in his arguments for God from motion, from matter, and all of these other things was this concept that we've already encountered briefly in St. Anselm, the idea of necessary being.

Now, I'm going to translate this into modern terms and do it as quickly, as down and dirty as I possibly can, and make it as simple as I possibly can. The simple argument is this. If anything exists, something somehow must have the power of being within it. Because if nothing has self-existent being, nothing could possibly be. If, put it another way, if there ever was a time when there was nothing, what could there possibly be now except nothing? And so, if there is something, there must be something that has the power of being, or nothing would be. And that which has the power of being ultimately can't be dependent or derived contingent being, because if my being is caused by something other than myself or outside of myself, and then it is caused by something other than itself, and not another, another, another, another, and you go on to what's called the infinite regress, that's manifest absurdity. Now, not everybody thought it was manifest absurdity. In our day, Burch and Russell had a public debate with Frederick Copleston, the great Roman Catholic philosopher, and Copleston tried to show Russell that the concept of an infinite regress is irrational and inconceivable, and Russell kept insisting that he could conceive of it.

And of course, the problem with the infinite regress is that it takes the problem of self-creation, which we've already looked at, and compounds the error infinitely. You don't just have a little bit of nonsense, you have infinite nonsense. But in any case, Saint Thomas Aquinas was getting at the idea that if anything exists, something must have necessary being. Now, again, there's a little bit of trickiness here, because the word necessary is used two different ways. Necessary being can mean logical necessity, meaning that if we are rational, if we are logical, logic necessitates that we postulate the idea of a self-existent eternal being. To deny that is to end in illogical absurdity. So, one could say that the idea of God is a logically necessary idea.

That's the kind of thing Anselm was trying to do. But perhaps even more importantly is the idea that Thomas is talking about when he talks about necessary being, meaning that God's being is ontologically necessary. That is, we're talking about being that cannot not be if God is eternal, and He has the power of being within Himself. It means that He exists not by some kind of external logical necessity, but by the necessity of His own being, because that's what being is, that pure being, which has no potentiality, according to Aristotle, in its pure form, pure actuality, does not have the power to stop being, because it's eternally self-existent and self- sufficient. That's why we proliferate attributes about God in terms of His immutability, His eternality, His infinity, and all the rest. So, it's that kind of thing that St. Thomas talked about.

The other thing that's important for Thomas is the importance he put on what's called the analogia entis, or the analogy of being. We are human beings. God is the supreme being. The difference between the supreme being and the human being is being. I don't have the power of being in and of myself. There's no logical necessity for anybody to believe that I exist or that I would exist a hundred years ago, that my birth was not a necessary concept. People could conceive of my never being born.

All right? Now, on the other hand, I don't have necessary being if I'm a creature. Only the supreme being has that. Human beings are dependent, derived, contingent, depending on something that does have eternal being. But even though I am not the supreme being and I'm a human being, there is some analogy of being that exists between God and us. The Bible talks about our being created in the image of God. There is some point of similarity. And this becomes, as we will see later on, absolutely vital to the whole question of whether any meaningful statement can be made about God by creatures such as we are.

Because if there is no point of similarity between God and us, we would have no grounds for any meaningful discussion about Him. And Thomas will become more and more important with respect to that issue later on. Well, those can be difficult concepts to understand, but Dr. R.C. Sproul explained them so well today here on Renewing Your Mind. This week, we're listening to lessons from his series, The Consequences of Ideas. In 35 lessons, R.C. surveys the history of philosophy. This ministry exists to proclaim, teach, and defend the holiness of God.

And before he went home to be with the Lord a few years ago, I asked R.C. why he believed it's so important that we teach on such heady topics. You know, it's funny that you ask me that now, because I'm in the midst of reading a very provocative book that's addressing a serious crisis in modern evangelicalism, where even heretofore basically considered to be sound theologians are drifting away from the biblical understanding of God and moving into a serious departure from an understanding of the perfect, pure being of God, His holiness, His transcendent otherness, His self-existence, His perfect being. And what happens when you depart from any aspect of theology proper, the understanding of the character and nature of God?

That is going to have repercussions on everything we understand, not only about God, but about His creation, the world, and how we live in it, because so basic and foundational to our whole understanding of life is our understanding of who God is. And that's why we think you'll find Dr. Sproul's series, The Consequences of Ideas, so helpful. We'd like to send you all 35 messages on nine DVDs. Contact us today with a donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries, and we'll be glad to send it to you.

Find us online at, or call us at 800-435-4343. We are grateful for your financial gifts. They keep us on the air. Renewing Your Mind is a unique voice, and this series is a good example of how we dive into some pretty deep water. So if you appreciate what we provide on this program, I hope you'll contact us today with your donation. We will send you The Consequences of Ideas as our way of saying thank you. Our number again is 800-435-4343 and our web address, Well, tomorrow R.C. will have more on the profound impact Thomas Aquinas had on our understanding of God. We hope you'll join us Thursday for Renewing Your Mind. Thank you.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-01-02 00:16:58 / 2024-01-02 00:25:35 / 9

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