The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church by Matthew Barrett
Chapter 4: Thomas Aquinas as a “Sounder Scholastic”
The Reformation’s Critical Retrieval of Scholasticism
This is the longest chapter of Barrett’s nearly 900-page book. The chapter on Martin Luther comes in at second longest, but pride of place goes to Thomas Aquinas.
Why ninety pages on Thomas Aquinas? Didn’t Aquinas believe many things that are at odds with “biblical” Christianity? Shouldn’t we Protestants steer clear of “Catholic” thinkers like Aquinas?
All of the church’s history is for every Christian. Protestant Christians who believe their history began with the Protestant Reformation are robbing themselves of the riches of 2000 plus years of God’s dealings with His people. As historian Timothy George likes to say, “There is a whole lot more history to the Christian faith between the death of Jesus and the birth of your grandma.”
The “sounder Scholastic” in Barrett’s chapter title is to underscore the need to separate Aquinas (1225-74) from later medieval Scholastics. Some of these later Scholastics like Biel (ca. 1420-95) misrepresented what Aquinas wrote. In doing so, a young Martin Luther thought that Aquinas was of little value. Barrett does a great job of showing that Luther and Aquinas both valued the work of previous theologians like Augustine.
After a short-term mission in 1986 to the former Yugoslavia, I travelled throughout Europe for two weeks. One of my stops included four days of study at L’Abri in Switzerland. Some of you will know that this is the study center started by Francis and Edith Schaeffer. Francis Schaeffer’s blockbuster How Should We Then Live? is still worth reading, but he badly misrepresented Aquinas. Schaeffer wrote:
By the thirteenth century the great Aquinas (1225-74) has already begun, in deference to Aristotle (384-22 BC), to open the door to placing revelation and human reason on an equal footing. (p. 43, emphasis mine)
While I was at L’Abri, I asked one of the tutors about Schaeffer’s misrepresentation of Aquinas. Though this tutor was very fond of Schaeffer, he admitted that Schaeffer relied on poor, secondary sources.
Many believe that Aquinas leaned hard on Aristotle. Thomas did gain insight from Aristotle, but as Barrett shows, the great Christian thinker was very influenced by Augustine. And so was Luther. The irony, and it has led to much confusion, is that unbeknownst to Luther he shared much of Aquinas’s theology.
If you are looking for an entertaining, insightful, and short book on Aquinas, you will be hard-pressed to do any better than the one written by the master stylist, G.K. Chesterton in Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox.