Saturday, December 1, 2007

Francis Schaeffer and Aquinas

Francis Schaeffer rather famously (well, among at least some evangelicals anyway; okay, maybe that doesn't exactly qualify as "famously", but work with me here) claimed that the descent of philosophy into existentialism and irrationality began with St. Thomas. We can see Schaeffer's idea summarized here:
Aquinas separated nature from grace in theology. The spiritual world and the earthly world became separated. The earthly world became what was "real" and the spiritual world was the "hypothetical."
The largest problem with this is that it's just plain nonsense. St. Thomas said nothing of the sort, and I can't conceive of any way that what he did say could rationally be construed like this. In the first place, he was an orthodox Christian, and to separate nature from grace smacks of Pelagianism. Secondly, it's irrational: God created us freely and without compulsion; hence creation was an act of grace from start to finish.

Thirdly, it seems that Schaeffer never bothered to read as far as the sixth article of the first question of the Summa Theologica. Because if he had, he would have realized that his construal of Aquinas was wrong.
The principles of other sciences either are evident and cannot be proved, or are proved by natural reason through some other science. But the knowledge proper to this science [theology] comes through revelation and not through natural reason. Therefore it has no concern to prove the principles of other sciences, but only to judge of them. Whatsoever is found in other sciences contrary to any truth of this science must be condemned as false: "Destroying counsels and every height that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God" (2 Corinthians 10:4-5) (ST I Q1 A6 ad 2).
St. Thomas says here that because the knowledge that is the subject of theology comes by revelation from God, it is consequently superior to the other sciences in the sense (among other ways that it is superior) that it is more certain. We attain to knowledge in the other sciences only with great difficulty: we may make errors of reason, so that we reach incorrect conclusions; on the other hand, we may draw valid inferences that are nevertheless false because the evidence we have at hand is inadequate. But revelation suffers from neither of these defects, and because it comes from God it cannot possibly be false because God does not lie, and his knowledge is perfect. This being the case, it rightly serves as the standard by which all the other sciences must be judged: so that, as he says, "Whatsoever is found in other sciences contrary to any truth of this science must be condemned as false." This being the case, it seems to me to be silly to say (as Schaeffer did) that Aquinas separated grace from nature. Nature is subject to judgment by revelation, as the saint says here.

Nevertheless, it must still be said that St. Thomas affirmed that reason can arrive at truth, and that it is not dependent upon theology to do so. To be sure, it is limited as to the scope and extent of the truth it can discover. Reason cannot discover those things that can only be known by faith, such as the fact that God is triune. It seems ridiculous to say that this affirmation of reason's (limited) power to discover truth in any way divorces nature and grace. To the contrary: what this means is that God has created us in such a way that we are well-suited for life in the world. Our senses and our minds reliably allow us to understand creation.

Far from being "hypothetical," one would be closer to the truth if he said that Aquinas considered the spiritual world to be more real than the physical world. To assert the contrary about him is either grossly ignorant or downright slanderous. Modern philosophy started with Descartes' rationalism, not with St. Thomas.

13 comments:

daniel4wr said...

Those who claim that Schaeffer misread Aquinas do not understand Schaeffer, or Aquinas, or both.

The above blogger has not even read Schaeffer, much less understood him. The quoted paragraph that is said to summarize Schaeffer’s thought is not even Schaeffer’s own words, but from some other misinformed internet source. Schaeffer never attributed to Aquinas the notion that the spiritual world was “hypothetical” or that only the material world was “real.” This blogger rebuts a strawman, not Francis Schaeffer.

Schaeffer’s point about Aquinas is the same point that the blogger acknowledges, namely, “St. Thomas affirmed that reason can arrive at truth, and that it is not dependent upon theology to do so.” Aquinas’ affirmation is false, as the blogger readily concedes: “To be sure, it [reason] is limited as to the scope and extent of the truth it can discover.” Precisely! Reason’s limitation is that reason can only begin with particulars and, without the revelation of Scripture, is unable to arrive at sufficient universals to establish that the particulars of the material world have any ultimate meaning, value, or truth. Aquinas specifically ruled out reason’s appeal to revelation as a basis for arriving at truth. As the blogger notes, Aquinas wrote in the Summa that the principles of philosophy must be either self-evident or “proved by natural reason,” and that knowledge obtained through the revelation of Scripture “has no concern to prove the principles of other sciences,” which include natural sciences, philosophy and metaphysics.

The blogger claims that modern philosophy began with Descartes’ rationalism. Yet, Descartes’ proclamation “I think, therefore I am” is the natural and logical extension of Aquinas’ insistence that philosophy must confine itself to natural reason (i.e. rationalism) and the philosopher must not appeal to Scripture in his search for truth. Schaeffer, as well as this blogger, correctly identifies Aquinas as the source of this thinking.

Reginald de Piperno said...

Hello daniel4wr,

The above blogger has not even read Schaeffer, much less understood him.

This turns out not to be the case. However, I will tentatively overrule my own objection, on the following grounds:

The quoted paragraph that is said to summarize Schaeffer’s thought is not even Schaeffer’s own words, but from some other misinformed internet source.

I long ago gave away my Schaeffer books, and so I was unable to provide the exact quotation in which I was interested. Furthermore, it has been decades since I read the particular material in question, so I could not rely on my own brain to reconstruct the quote. Consequently I relied upon the website linked in the blog post.

You say that my source was misinformed. I am perfectly willing to believe that and to amend the post accordingly, if you would be so kind as to provide the correct quotation from Schaeffer’s work. Thank you for your concern for accuracy, which I share. I do not wish to misrepresent him.

Schaeffer’s point about Aquinas is the same point that the blogger acknowledges, namely, “St. Thomas affirmed that reason can arrive at truth, and that it is not dependent upon theology to do so.” Aquinas’ affirmation is false, as the blogger readily concedes: “To be sure, it [reason] is limited as to the scope and extent of the truth it can discover.”

I’m afraid you have misunderstood me if you think that my claim is that Aquinas is wrong in saying that reason can arrive at truth. I am certainly not saying that. Reason is limited, as described in the post. But it is certainly capable at arriving at truth without reference to theology.

Precisely! Reason’s limitation is that reason can only begin with particulars and, without the revelation of Scripture, is unable to arrive at sufficient universals to establish that the particulars of the material world have any ultimate meaning, value, or truth.

Aquinas would certainly not agree with this assessment.

Yet, Descartes’ proclamation “I think, therefore I am” is the natural and logical extension of Aquinas’ insistence that philosophy must confine itself to natural reason (i.e. rationalism) and the philosopher must not appeal to Scripture in his search for truth.

Aquinas was no rationalist. He was Aristotelian, and he certainly did not believe that reason was incapable of saying anything valid about “ultimate meaning, value, or truth.” See: the Summa Contra Gentiles, which is a five-volume argument from reason for the truth of the Catholic Faith.

Peace,

RdP

daniel4wr said...

Greetings Reginald,

You want me to “provide the correct quotation from Schaeffer’s work” to support your misstatement of his position. There are no such quotes. That’s the point.

You're afraid I misunderstood you if I think you claimed Aquinas is wrong in saying that reason can arrive at truth. I did not say you claimed that reason can not arrive at truth. I said you claimed that reason was limited in its ability to arrive at truth. Which is exactly what you said.

You wrote that Aquinas would not agree that reason can arrive at sufficient universals to provide ultimate meaning and truth. First, Aquinas is wrong. As you admitted yourself, natural reason can not arrive at such truths as God is triune. Second, Aquinas would not condone your appeal to him as authority as an argument in support of natural theology. He wrote in the Summa that the argument from authority in the area of natural reason is the weakest form of argumentation.

Finally, you wrote that Aquinas has five volumes of argument from reason for the truth of the Catholic Faith. Did Aquinas prove by reason that God is Triune? If not, his failure exposes the “limits” of reason that you identified yourself. If he did, then you wrongly asserted that reason is unable to prove that God is triune and you owe me a retraction.

Love,

Daniel

Reginald de Piperno said...

Hello daniel4wr,

You want me to “provide the correct quotation from Schaeffer’s work” to support your misstatement of his position. There are no such quotes. That’s the point.

I regret the poor formulation of my request. Schaeffer misrepresented Aquinas in his works. I am very confident of this claim. I'm somewhat confident that the quotation I have in mind appeared in How Shall We Then Live? but I could be mistaken about that as I said, because it has been a long time. On the other hand I am reasonably confident that this misrepresentation of Aquinas is reliably demonstrated by my Internet source, or I would never have resorted to using it in the first place. So I repeat my original offer, slightly amended: if you provide a quotation from Schaeffer's works clearly showing that my source was mistaken in its representation of Schaeffer's views about Aquinas, I'll consider revising the post to reflect the fact.

You wrote that Aquinas would not agree that reason can arrive at sufficient universals to provide ultimate meaning and truth. First, Aquinas is wrong. As you admitted yourself, natural reason can not arrive at such truths as God is triune. Second, Aquinas would not condone your appeal to him as authority as an argument in support of natural theology. He wrote in the Summa that the argument from authority in the area of natural reason is the weakest form of argumentation.

Aquinas doesn't say that natural reason can demonstrate that God is triune. He affirms that the doctrine of the Trinity is a truth of faith only. That is not the same as saying that reason can arrive at no truths about God or morality at all.

Arguments from authority are the weakest, but that is not the same as saying that they have no force at all. Aquinas makes appeals to authority with regard to every single article in the Summa Theologica, and a huge number of these appeals are appeals to human authorities. So it's clear that he doesn't consider an appeal to authority as formally invalid. Furthermore, since the very subject in question has to do with Aquinas' views on whether reason can demonstrate truths about God and morality (not all but some), I'm not sure how one can avoid appealing to his views as an authority. :-)

Finally, you wrote that Aquinas has five volumes of argument from reason for the truth of the Catholic Faith. Did Aquinas prove by reason that God is Triune? If not, his failure exposes the “limits” of reason that you identified yourself. If he did, then you wrongly asserted that reason is unable to prove that God is triune and you owe me a retraction.

I owe you no retraction, Daniel. The fact that Aquinas is not a rationalist, and that he does not believe that literally all truths are demonstrable by reason, does not imply that he is wrong in affirming that reason can demonstrate at least some truths about God and morality.

RdP

Reginald de Piperno said...

Daniel,

It occurs to me that this conversation has strayed off-topic. I'm not blaming anyone for that (I have surely contributed to this off-topicness myself, and I'm willing to take full blame if you like), but I want to get things back on-topic.

The blog post attempts to show that Schaeffer misrepresented Aquinas' views. You say that my source for Schaeffer's views has misrepresented him. I am ready to accept evidence from you that shows this to be the case, as I said in both of my previous comments. That is definitely relevant to the blog post, and certainly needs to be the starting point of any further discussion that we have concerning the post, since if you are correct, my argument in defense of Aquinas may be irrelevant or wrong.

So—let's start with that. Please provide evidence to support your claim that my source has got things wrong. Thanks.

RdP

daniel4wr said...

Reg,

Your last dodge is unnecessary; we are all saying the same thing.

We agree that Modernity's Rationalism was crystallized in the Descartes’ axiom, "I think, therefore I am." The foundation for this axiom is the idea that man, beginning only with his reason and without resort to God's revelation in Scripture, can attain to universal truth, meaning and value. Now, who promoted this idea that became foundational to Modern Rationalism? Aquinas! St. Thomas laid its cornerstone by proclaiming that man, beginning with only his reason, can find Truth apart from Scripture.

As you correctly stated, "St. Thomas affirmed that reason can arrive at truth, and that is not dependent upon theology to do so." Schaeffer said the same, "In [Aquinas'] view, natural theology is a theology that could be pursued independently from the Scriptures.” Escape from Reason, p. 11. He goes on to say:

“Though it was an autonomous study, [Aquinas] hoped for unity and said that there was a correlation between natural theology and the Scriptures. But the important point in what followed was that a really autonomous area was set up. From the basis of this autonomous principle, philosophy also became free, and was separated from revelation. Therefore philosophy began to take wings, as it were, and fly off wherever it wished, without relationship to the Scriptures.... Aquinas had opened the way to an autonomous Humanism, an autonomous philosophy, and once the movement gained momentum, there was soon a flood.” Escape from Reason, pages 11-13.

Thus, Aquinas begat Descartes, and Descartes begat Modern Rationalism. There is no escaping it.

Dan

Reginald de Piperno said...

Daniel,

Your last dodge is unnecessary; we are all saying the same thing.

Really? We’re saying the same thing? Then I suppose we’re done here, since you must agree with my post. :-)

Oh, wait. You said that I’m wrong about a few things. So I guess that we’re not saying the same thing, are we? :-)

Schaeffer said the same, “In [Aquinas’] view, natural theology is a theology that could be pursued independently from the Scriptures.” Escape from Reason, p. 11.

Thank you for providing the quotation(s). I appreciate it. I’m not persuaded that they merit a substantive revision of my post.

Depending upon what Schaeffer means by “natural theology,” this first quotation might accurately reflect what Aquinas believes. That phrase occurs exactly once in the English translation of the Summa Theologica, here at II-II q94 a1, where Aquinas uses it to describe the superstitions of the Greek non-Christian philosophers. Presumably this is not what Schaeffer had in mind, but then he should not have used the phrase to describe St Thomas’ view when St Thomas uses it to mean something other than his own view.

Alternatively he might actually be referring (under a label foreign to Aquinas) to natural law, of which St Thomas writes: “the rational creature is subject to Divine providence in the most excellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself and for others. Wherefore it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law” (ST I-II q91 a2).

Possibly (Probably?) he has something in mind more like what St Thomas says in I q1 a1 ad2, where St Thomas says that “theology included in sacred doctrine differs in kind from that theology which is part of philosophy.”

In short, I’m not sure what exactly he might be referring to. If he means by “natural theology” a theology discoverable by reason, then I’d say that Aquinas does argue on the basis of reason for a number of truths about God. And if that’s what Schaeffer means in the quotation above, then he’s got it pretty straight on that count. Unfortunately, it seems that he doesn’t stop there.

“But the important point in what followed was that a really autonomous area was set up. From the basis of this autonomous principle, philosophy also became free, and was separated from revelation. Therefore philosophy began to take wings, as it were, and fly off wherever it wished, without relationship to the Scriptures.... Aquinas had opened the way to an autonomous Humanism, an autonomous philosophy, and once the movement gained momentum, there was soon a flood.” Escape from Reason, pages 11-13.

But Aquinas set up no such “autonomous principle,” and this is where I say Schaeffer got things wrong (and in consequence has misrepresented St Thomas). Because (as I point out in the post) St Thomas says “Whatsoever is found in other sciences contrary to any truth of this [sacred] science must be condemned as false.” Why? Because truth cannot contradict truth. And because the truths of sacred theology are far more certain than the truths we may arrive at by means of reason—owing to the fact that the truths of sacred theology are received by divine revelation—if reason and faith be found in apparent conflict, it is reason which has erred. Far from being absolutely autonomous, then, in St Thomas’ view reason goes astray when it sets aside the truths of faith. So Schaeffer errs in proposing that autonomy was “set up” by Aquinas, and it’s absurd for him to suggest otherwise.

RdP

daniel4wr said...

Reg,

Thank you for your last post. We are back on track and really making progress now.

We have established Aquinas’ Affirmation that (in your words) “reason can arrive at truth, and that is not dependent upon theology to do so." We have also established that Modern Rationalism (expressed in Descartes’ axiom “I think, therefore I am”) is founded upon the principle that man beginning only with his reason can arrive at truth without resort to God's revelation in Scripture. I could rest Schaeffer’s case right here because we’ve established that Aquinas’ Affirmation is the Foundation of Modern Rationalism.

Now, you have gone on to raise a secondary point, and a very important point it is because, on close examination, it demonstrates just how right Schaeffer really was.

Schaeffer’s point is that Aquinas’ Affirmation established an autonomous area for human reason that allowed an autonomous philosophy “to take wings, as it were, and fly off wherever it wished, without relationship to the Scriptures.”

You claim that Aquinas intended to keep philosophy confined to a cage bounded by Scripture so that whenever the philosophers came up with a reasoned conclusion contrary to Scripture, Aquinas could strike it out and send them back to their cage until they reasoned their way to a conclusion that was consistent with Scripture. But this Cage of Reason bounded by Scripture is a self-contradictory concept that could not exist in practice or in theory and so, as Schaeffer said, philosophy took wings and flew the coop.

The irrationality of Aquinas’ insistence that reasoned truth conform to revealed truth is in his statements from the Summa that “arguments from reason cannot avail to prove what must be received on faith” and that human reason can not be used to prove the articles of faith. What this means is that the absolute standards of revealed truth by which Aquinas judges natural reason can not themselves be established by natural reason. To the philosophers, there is no rational basis for this and, by Aquinas’ own admission, it is beyond reason. Aquinas’ placement of revelation above reason was a simple act of fiat for which Aquinas has no reasonable explanation. Therefore, there was no reason whatsoever for the philosophers to submit to the rejection of their conclusions based on an appeal to the authority of Scripture. So we see philosophy “take wings, as it were, and fly off wherever it wished, without relationship to the Scriptures.” Francis Schaeffer was right.

I guess that settles it.

Happy New Year!

Dan Lawler

Reginald de Piperno said...

Dan,

I don't consider anything to be settled at all. I've written a new post in defense of my view. See if that helps.

In the way of actual influences upon Descartes, you'd be better off looking at William of Ockham. See (for starters) here and here (section: "Descartes: The Human Coup").

Can you identify anyone outside of Schaeffer's sphere of influence who agrees with him about this?

RdP

Reginald de Piperno said...

What this means is that the absolute standards of revealed truth by which Aquinas judges natural reason can not themselves be established by natural reason.

This is more or less correct, although it’s not the sort of language that St Thomas uses. Because truth cannot contradict truth, there can be no conflict between the truths of faith and the truths discovered by way of reason (see the post above for more about this). If reason proposes as true something that contradicts the truths of faith, then reason is mistaken: it is either uninformed, or misinformed, or logically invalid, or incomplete. That was the whole point of the Summa Contra Gentiles: to show that the Catholic Faith is reasonable even though not everything it teaches can be demonstrated by reason, and that there is no contradiction whatsoever between the Catholic Faith and reason.

To the philosophers, there is no rational basis for this and, by Aquinas’ own admission, it is beyond reason.

What are you saying is “beyond reason” here?

Aquinas’ placement of revelation above reason was a simple act of fiat for which Aquinas has no reasonable explanation. Therefore, there was no reason whatsoever for the philosophers to submit to the rejection of their conclusions based on an appeal to the authority of Scripture.

This is just wrong, since Aquinas does provide an explanation in the very first question of the Summa Theologica as to why the truths we know by way of revelation are more certain than those we know by way of reason.

RdP

daniel4wr said...

Reg,

While Aquinas asserted that truths known by revelation are more certain than truths known by reason, he did not and could not prove by human reason that this should be so. That’s what provided the philosophers with grounds for rejecting Scripture as the ultimate test of their metaphysical truths.

You have asked for names of others who agree with Schaeffer. Now there you go again with appeals to authority -- the weakest form of argumentation! If Schaeffer is right, what does it matter that the whole world is against him?

I will read your new post and comment there as appropriate.

Dan

Reginald de Piperno said...

Dan,

I'm sorry I haven't persuaded you. Thanks for stopping by, and thank you for providing the Schaeffer quotation. I appreciate it very much.

Peace,

RdP

daniel4wr said...

Reg,

You're a scholar and a gentleman!

Dan