Is Thomas Aquinas a Protestant? Book looks at saint's universal appeal

Is Thomas Aquinas a Protestant? Book looks at saint’s universal appeal

Is Thomas Aquinas a Protestant? Book looks at saint’s universal appeal

Francis Beckwith. (Credit: Baylor University.)

Crux speaks with Francis Beckwith about his new book on Thomas Aquinas.

[Editor’s Note: Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies, and Associate Director of the Graduate Program in Philosophy, at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He was born Catholic, but later became an Evangelical Protestant. Beckwith is the former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, but resigned when he returned to the Catholic Church in 2007. His latest book is Never Doubt Thomas: The Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant. He spoke to Charles Camosy.]

Camosy: First, tell us a bit about your own background. You were raised Catholic, converted to Evangelical Protestantism, but then returned to the Catholic Church. (A return about which you wrote a book.) Aside from the role Thomas Aquinas played–we’ll get to that in a moment–what or who were some of the important influences along this religious journey?

Beckwith: I was born in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada. Our family moved there in 1967 when I was six years old. My parents, both Catholic, sent all of their children to twelve years of parochial school. During my early teenager years, I became intensely interested in the Bible and Jesus as a result of overhearing some conversations between my parents and their friend, a Catholic charismatic, who had undergone a kind of conversion experience.

He invited me to a weekly Bible study that included Evangelical participants who were part of the burgeoning and ecumenical charismatic movement. This led me to a Jesus People church in downtown Vegas. It had a tremendous book and tape library of which I took advantage. I read scores of books by a variety of mostly popular Evangelical writers. During high school I became a kind of agnostic, but towards the end of my senior year I was drawn back to the Evangelical world, though this time I was seeking answers to deeper philosophical and theological questions.

This led me to a body of literature authored by Evangelicals that introduced me to thinkers like St. Augustine, St. Anselm, and St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as to the perennial questions in philosophy. These Evangelical authors included Norman Geisler, Ronald Nash, Stuart Hackett, John Warwick Montgomery, and Francis Schaeffer. It was Geisler’s work that led me to Aquinas. I was quickly drawn to the way St. Thomas reasoned. What I didn’t realize at the time was how unusual Geisler’s approach was in the Evangelical world. Virtually all Evangelical philosophers and theologians, including people like Schaeffer, Carl F. H. Henry, and Colin Brown, saw Aquinas’s thought as a precursor to modernism and an obstacle to true faith. This, of course, is wildly incorrect, and I knew that right away. Nevertheless, this misunderstanding still persists in the Evangelical world.

It does seem that Thomas, the Angelic Doctor, was with you in some capacity from very early on in this journey though. And is it fair to say he played a major role in your returning to Rome?

Yes. When I entered the doctoral program at Fordham University in 1984, I considered myself a Thomist of sorts, largely as a result of reading Geisler. When I left Fordham in 1987, I was even more committed to Aquinas after having studied with the great Jesuits, W. Norris Clarke and Gerald McCool.

Yet, my knowledge of Aquinas was not very deep. To be sure, I was very much moved by his use of natural theology and natural law—and how they can be employed to effectively show the rationality of theism—but I was not particularly interested in the larger corpus of Aquinas’s work, much of which is distinctly Catholic in ways that my Evangelical self just did not really appreciate at the time.

Here’s an example of how blind I was. When my wife and I moved to a new home last year, I was going through my books and came across a copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions that I had read for Father McCool’s “Medieval Humanism” class. I began paging through it to see what my 24-year old self had written in the margins. What I discovered astonished me. In several places I had underlined certain passages with this notation in the margin, “This sounds really Catholic.” Clearly, I had expected St. Augustine to sound like some kind of paleo-Reformed theologian, as he is often depicted in some Protestant circles. But for some reason, it never occurred to me at the time that perhaps the Catholic Church’s continuity with St. Augustine was a good reason for me to rethink my departure from the Church.

I still don’t understand what I was thinking, or whether I was thinking. Nevertheless, as I have to come realize as I have gotten older, there’s more to the life of faith than merely thinking, which is a kind of embarrassing thing for a philosopher to confess. But even Aquinas—as I have come to learn—realized that reason cannot be exercised properly without the cultivation of the virtues, including those that are infused in us by God’s grace: Faith, hope, and charity. Also, our judgments and decisions—especially on matters concerning faith—are often guided by our unconscious assumptions about what counts as a live option, as William James would put it. So, I can only surmise that at that time in my life Catholicism just did not seem like a live option, even though the seeds had been planted for it to eventually become a live option via the maturation of my nascent Thomism.

Your new book makes several provocative claims. One chapter, for instance, is titled “Aquinas as Protestant.” Folks will have to read the chapter to get your full case, but maybe whet their appetites by giving us a sense of what is going on here?

I wish I could take credit for those clever chapter titles. But all the credit goes to Carey Newman, the former director at Baylor University Press. They are his idea. As for the “Aquinas as Protestant” chapter, I explain how much of the Protestant criticism leveled against Aquinas’s use of natural law and natural theology is consistent with Thomas’s own understandings of both. Thus, in an ironic sense, I am making the case for “Aquinas as Protestant,” though I am also saying that his critics are more Thomistic than they realize. I am, of course, not saying that there are no real disagreements or differences. But, as I argue in the chapter, they are just not as deep or unbridgeable as many have supposed.

Here’s a question about another provocative claim: In what way is Aquinas a pluralist?

He believed that we can know true things about God apart from the Bible and sacred tradition. To use his lingo, he distinguished the “preambles of faith” from the “articles of faith.”

For this reason, I argue in Never Doubt Thomas that Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God. In this sense, Aquinas is a kind of pluralist, but not the sort that believes all religious claims are equal. Rather, in the sense that differing religious traditions, even with contrary truth claims, often get the divine nature right, and that this tells us something about how God created us: We are ordered toward beatitude, knowing God as he truly is.

It is no accident that Aquinas begins the Summa Theologica with an extended discussion of the existence and nature of God and winds up concluding that one can know by natural reason that there exists a perfect, unchanging, eternal, and simple source of the entire universe. Jews and Muslims, and even many non-religious people, believe this as well. Of course, Christians, Jews, and Muslims disagree about many things, e.g., the deity of Christ, the Trinity, etc., but these are matters, reasons Aquinas, that can only be known by Holy Scripture and the creeds.

Okay, I have to ask you to chime in on a debate that has been buzzing around me for a generation now: Is Thomas Aquinas a philosopher or is he a theologian?

That’s like asking whether Sammy Davis, Jr. was a song man or a dance man. He can certainly be both, just as Aquinas was both a philosopher and a theologian. Like philosophers today, Aquinas brought to bear on his work all that he believed we can know. But unlike many philosophers today, he believed that theology was a science, a discipline with its own methods, traditions, and findings.

I suspect that lurking beneath the question of whether Aquinas was a philosopher or a theologian are these two modern assumptions: 1) theology is not a knowledge tradition that philosophical reflection can illuminate, and 2) philosophical reflection should be cabined by the deliverances of the natural sciences, and thus theology cannot illuminate philosophy. The good news is that Catholicism rejects both modern assumptions, and for this reason we can turn this either/or question into a both/and answer.


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