Doubting Thomists: John Bolt’s defense of (the real) Aquinas against his Reformational critics


Protestants have always had a complicated relationship with the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. On the one hand, the Reformers rejected many of his views on salvation and the sacraments. On the other hand, even in the heat of post-Reformation polemics, Protestants and Catholics were still able to find much common ground in his teachings on metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology. But then things changed. The common ground began to erode to the point that, for many Protestants today, “Thomism” has become a term of derision.

Two developments in the late nineteenth century contributed to this change in attitude. The first was the rise of a new interpretation of Aquinas’s thought among Catholics—the so-called “neo-Thomist” renaissance (aka “textbook Thomism”)—which stressed the distinction between nature and grace. The second was an anti-modernist movement in the Dutch Reformed churches known as neo-Calvinism or (in one of its offshoots) Reformational philosophy. This movement, led by statesman Abraham Kuyper, theologian Herman Bavinck, and philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, stressed the basic opposition between Christian and non-Christian thought. Understandably, neo-Calvinists tended to read Aquinas through the lens of their neo-Thomist contemporaries, thus imputing to Aquinas some of the sins of modernity. In particular, they faulted him for creating an “unholy alliance” between Christian theology and pagan Greek philosophy.

In recent years, more scholars—both Catholic and Protestant—have come to see that the neo-Thomist reading of Aquinas was actually a misreading. The real Aquinas, it is now recognized, had a more robust understanding of the effects of sin on the unregenerate mind. So the early post-Reformation theologians may have been right about Aquinas after all.

So argues John Bolt, professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary and one of the contributors of Aquinas among the Protestants, edited by Manfred Svensson and David VanDrunen (Wiley-Blackwell, 2017). In his essay “Doubting Reformational Anti-Thomism,” Bolt recounts his own intellectual journey from skepticism to sympathy toward Aquinas. He highlights four major doubts of his regarding the Reformational anti-Thomist paradigm:

  1. “Two kinds of people; two kinds of science.” Kuyper famously argued that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think according to a Christian worldview, and those who don’t. This principle—known among neo-Calvinists as the antithesis—applies as well in the realm of science, in which opposition is seen not primarily between science and faith, but rather between two kinds of science, each grounded in a different set of faith commitments. Bolt’s misgiving here is Kuyper’s apparent conflation of the distinction between regenerate and unregenerate with the distinction between truth and falsehood. To accept this point, Bolt argues, would demand that Christians withdraw from secular society altogether. Further, while Bolt agrees that one’s religious commitments affect every area of life, he questions whether one’s every thought, word, and deed can be traced back to an ultimate religious starting point (136).
  2. Grondmotief analysis.” By grondmotief Bolt is referring to Dooyeweerd’s thesis in Roots of Western Culture that every society is governed by an underlying religious principle that is pre-theoretical, dialectical, and all-encompassing. Dooyeweerd classifies the ground motives of Western civilization in four stages: 1) the “form-matter” ground motive of Greek antiquity; 2) the “creation-fall-redemption” ground motive of Christianity; 3) the medieval/Thomist “nature-grace” synthesis of the previous two; and 4) the modern “nature-freedom” synthesis of the previous three. However, Bolt levels two major critiques against this thesis: it’s bad history, and it’s reductionistic. For one, it’s questionable whether the form-matter dialectic properly describes the whole complexity of ancient Greek thought—or even the thought of one single Greek thinker, Aristotle. For another, it discounts the legitimate contributions of non-Christian thinkers like Aristotle to Christian efforts in understanding reality (139-140).
  3. Is “creation-fall-redemption” pre-theoretical? Or: the impossible goal of a “pure” biblical philosophy. Bolt questions whether it’s appropriate to view the biblical storyline of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation as a worldview. Within Reformational circles, there is a debate about whether philosophy should be governed by direct appeals to biblical texts, or whether the Bible’s grand narrative speaks to our hearts on a more pre-theoretical level. Dooyeweerd evidently argued the latter, but Bolt is dissatisfied with either approach. Pointing to Bavinck’s definition of “worldview” in terms of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics, Bolt considers the C-F-R-C paradigm as a second-order theological abstraction which, while legitimate as far as it goes, has too narrow a scope to do all the work required of a worldview (142).
  4. Body, soul, and man’s supernatural end. Lastly, Bolt responds to the familiar charge of “dualism” that Reformational critics are so fond of leveling against Thomists. The old charge claims that Aquinas was influenced by pagan Greek views of the soul and body, but Bolt shows that, again, Aquinas has been misunderstood and actually has much more in common with his critics. In particular, Aquinas affirmed that man’s creation was itself a gift of grace, that part of the image of God was lost in the fall (what Bavinck calls the “narrow” sense) while part is retained (the “broad” sense), and that humanity’s redemption entails more than just a recovery of what was lost. On all of these points, a neo-Calvinist would find little with which to disagree. And yet, for all of his repudiations of unwarranted dualisms, Bolt insists that the Christian life still requires the recognition of a duality in a certain sense. We are, after all, pilgrims in this world, and although this is God’s good creation, we cannot escape the longing for heaven. What we are left with is what Bavinck calls a “relative” rather than “absolute” dualism (144).

Bolt’s essay is challenging on many points, and he is certainly right to stress the importance of giving Aquinas a fair hearing. And given the constraints of a single essay, Bolt covers an impressive amount of ground. However, it does leave a couple unresolved questions for me.

My first question has to do with Kuyper’s view of the antithesis. Certainly some neo-Calvinists (Kuyper included) have sometimes been rather careless in their articulation of this principle. At the same time, Kuyper also had one or two things to say about the role of common grace in unbelieving thought—a fact that receives no attention in Bolt’s critique. To that point, John Frame distinguishes between “extreme” formulations of the antithesis—in which unbelievers are characterized as incapable of knowing or uttering any truth—and more modest formulations. In its more modest formulations, unbelievers can and do know much that is true; in fact, there is potentially no upper limit on the number of true beliefs that an unbeliever may hold. But what an unbeliever lacks is consistency. An unbeliever’s ultimate religious commitments are opposed to the truth of God, his Word, and his world. At the same time, common grace prevents the unbeliever from following through on his unbelief with complete consistency. Because of this happy inconsistency, believers may find much in non-Christian culture with which they can agree and even collaborate. So my question here would be, how far removed is the real Aquinas from an account of the antithesis held in proper tension with common grace?

My second question has to do with the relationship of the C-F-R-C paradigm to worldview. Surely it does not make sense to speak of a propositional articulation of the biblical narrative as pre-theoretical. But is that really what Dooyeweerd’s disciples are getting at? What if we instead see this paradigm as a set of questions that every human instinctively seeks to answer? Whether consciously or unconsciously, we all see ourselves as actors playing an assigned role within a larger story—a story that tells us where we come from, what’s wrong with the world, and how it’s to be fixed. Regeneration involves a reorientation to the correct story. Now it is one thing to play one’s role within the story, and another thing to articulate the script of the story. Might this distinction help preserve a place for the biblical storyline within the concept of worldview? Further, couldn’t we see a narratival definition of worldview as a legitimate supplement to Bavinck’s philosophical definition, rather than as a substitute?

These questions notwithstanding, Bolt’s overall argument deserves careful reflection, especially for Reformational worldview proponents who are inclined to view Aquinas with suspicion. They may find that they have more in common with the Angelic Doctor than they at first realized.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

One Response to “Doubting Thomists: John Bolt’s defense of (the real) Aquinas against his Reformational critics”

  1. Have you been listening to the Reformed Forum discussion on the topic? They are having a conference about it.

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