Winds blow trends here and there from time to time, and a recent wind I’ve noted is the discussion on Thomas Aquinas. I suppose it’s been going on for a while, but it’s starting to blow more forcefully because I’m seeing the discussion more frequently. I’ve wondered why the 13th century theologian has suddenly so many fanboys. I don’t remember seeing him celebrated to this degree in times gone by. Sure, I can learn a lot from him, as I can learn a thing or two from almost anyone, but, knowing the little I know about him, I’ve wondered if he, aside from being a road to Romanism, is suddenly a nice distraction from some fairly significant issues we are dealing with. Social justice? Wokeness? Shutting down churches for COVID? Arrested pastors? Look over there! Thomas Aquinas! In other words, is he a nice way to change the conversation? Perhaps.
Recently, having read an old book by Francis Schaeffer, I suspect there’s more to it. Aquinas isn’t a ruse amidst some important topics as much as he might be justification for some very bad decision amidst those important topics. At least that’s what I’ve gathered from reading Francis Schaeffer’s 1968 book, Escape from Reason. In it, he delineates the relationship between Aquinas and bad thinking, which stems from Aquinas’ thinking on nature and grace. That’s a relationship that easily justifies bad policy, like lockdowns and declaring Christian worship “unessential.” Let me explain.
Schaeffer points to the significance of Aquinas in the development of Western thought: “Thomas Aquinas (1225—74) opened the way for discussion of what is usually called ‘nature and grace.'”1 Contrasting grace and nature, grace refers to the heavenly unseen realm, while nature refers to the material realm. Aquinas attempted to counter a previous emphasis on the heavenly things by opening discussion on the natural things. In presenting this dichotomy, he fostered a discussion on the relationship between the two realms, and that, according to Schaeffer, “opened the way for much that was destructive.”2
The destructiveness flows from Aquinas’ unscriptural view of the fall of man. Failing to comprehend the noetic effects of sin, he held that “the will of man was fallen, but the intellect was not.”3 Because of this, in Aquinas’ view, man has the ability to properly function in his reason and intellect autonomously apart from God. In essence, man should be able to function in this world rightly without the regenerating power of God and His special revelation in Scripture. Enter natural theology: “In this view, natural theology is a theology that could be pursued independently from the Scriptures.”4 Theoretically, Aquinas’ faulty epistemological presuppositions can be applied to all disciplines, from theology to philosophy to law. In this context, the adjective natural before any discipline indicates that true propositions in that discipline can be derived by fallen man apart from grace. Man, then, can develop dogmatic theology, just laws, and righteous governments apart from special revelation.
The problem is that fallen man does not operate fully rationally. He cannot do so apart from grace. He can certainly discern true things, but he is unable to discern a fully true systematic worldview whereby all aspects of life relate and are consistently held together under the headship of Christ (Colossians 1:17). Fallen men “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18) and have been given over to “a debased mind” (Romans 1:28). Fallen man starts with himself and attempts to reason outward, but true wisdom and knowledge begin with God (Proverbs 1:7; Proverbs 9:10). Following Aquinas’ thought, natural revelation, without grace, “was made autonomous,” and “nature began to ‘eat up’ grace.”5 Man’s interpretation of nature apart from God is skewed by his sin so that he uses his ability to reason against the God who gave him reason. Without grace, man in his thinking deforms.
This is what the Reformation solved. Schaeffer explains:
[The Reformation] rejected the old and growing humanism in the Roman Catholic Church, and it rejected the concept of an incomplete Fall resulting in man’s autonomous intellect and the the possibility of a natural theology which could be pursued independently from the Scriptures. The Reformation accepted the biblical picture of a total Fall. The whole man had been made by God, but now the whole man is fallen, including his intellect and will. Only God was autonomous.6
He continues: “For the Reformation, final and sufficient knowledge rested in the Bible — that is, Scripture alone, in contrast to Scripture plus anything else parallel to the Scriptures, whether it be the Church or a natural theology.”7 As Aquinas’ thought developed and the logic was carried to its end, the natural swallowed grace, a happening that renders thought incoherent and futile: “…whenever art or science has tried to be autonomous, a principle has always manifested itself — nature ‘eats up’ grace. Thus art and science themselves soon began to be meaningless.”8 Enter post-modern nihilism. The Reformation, according to Schaeffer, corrected that error by calling men back to Scripture as the norm of norms and the rule of rules. Through Scripture, we must interpret nature.
Schaeffer can’t stress enough that when the natural is held autonomously apart from grace, nature, because of man’s perversity, always swallows grace. Most alarmingly this can occur in our understanding of Christ Himself and lead sincere people to call Christ “Antichrist” and Antichrist “Christ.”
We must never forget that the great enemy who is coming is the Antichrist, he is not anti-non-Christ. Increasingly over the last few years the word Jesus, separated from the content of Scripture, has become the enemy of the Jesus of history, the Jesus who died and rose and who is coming again and who is the eternal Son of God.9
When people believe in a Christ who is distinct from Scripture and held in contrast to God’s Law, their Christ will swallow belief in the real Christ, which renders their Christ Antichrist. Afterall, “the workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23) will prove themselves false converts on the day of Christ’s wrath, even if they call him, “Lord, Lord” (Matthew 7:21, 22). Calling Him “Lord” does not mean He’s actually your Lord. If He is indeed Lord, Christ says you will be like the one “who hears these words of mine and does them” (Matthew 7:24), and the false convert He says will be like the one “who hears these words of mine and does not do them” (Matthew 7:26). A man who lets natural law swallow Christ’s Law and then calls it “Christ’s Law” stands in terrible danger.
This brings me to the season we have now (hopefully) left behind. I have heard people say things like “The government employs natural law, and we must obey the government” to justify COVID lockdowns. By such reasoning, the government, by natural law, has been justified in its actions. It redefined church as an online gathering according to natural law. It mandated liturgy by disallowing singing and requiring vestments in masks according to natural law. It seized private enterprise, thus robbing people of their private property and investments by shuttering businesses which ruined lives. That was natural law. It attempted to force people to forgo gainful employment in violation of the 4th commandment. Again, it was natural law. If anyone uses natural law to justify any of those acts or more acts like them, he is essentially saying that natural law swallowed God’s Law, which is a heralding of the lordship of the state over the Lordship of Christ while still calling Christ “Lord.” It’s a terrible place to be. Men call Christ “Lord,” but then hallow the state as lord in the name of natural law.
Schaeffer helps with this. He notes, “The whole Reformation system of law was built on the fact that God had revealed something real down into the common things of life.”10 He continues, “For Reformation man there was a basis for law. Modern man has not only thrown away Christian theology; he has thrown away the possibility of what our forefathers had as a basis for morality and law.”11 In essence, Reformation men ground law in God’s Law. Modern men throw it away for something else, trading their birthright for a bowl of soup.
Lockdowns, as noted above, were direct violations of God’s Law. The policy sprung from rootless secular states applying man’s wisdom to solve a perceived problem. Worship, private property, ecclesiology, and even family were severally violated and even discarded by the state for the state’s end. Anyone who advocated for the tyranny of lockdowns in the name of natural law let natural law swallow God’s Law, which is a denial of Christ’s lordship over all spheres and realms.
In 1968, Francis Schaeffer explained the church’s compromise during the COVID era over half a century before the COVID era, an era when some pastors become prophets of state dogma by extolling the virtues of natural law at the expense of God’s Law in the name of Christ. Many called submission to a Satanic state and its destructive policies “Christlike,” and they guilted their parishioners into lawlessness. That’s because they equate Christlikeness with what the world calls “good,” even in this case at the expense of what Christ calls “good,” namely His Law, which makes the simple wise (Psalm 19:7) Schaeffer prophetically called this in 1968:
Consequently what really forms the “Christlike” act today is simply what the majority of the Church or the majority of society makes up its mind is desirable at the particular moment. You cannot have real morals in the real world after you have made this separation. What you have is merely a relative set of morals.12
Pushing Aquinas’ thought into the realm of law, by forcing a separation between natural law and God’s Law, causes natural law to eclipse divine revelation. We are left with nothing but what the majority wills. If canceling Christian worship is for the good, it is Christlike. That’s how we love our neighbours. If robbing our neighbours of a livelihood is for the good, it is Christlike. That’s how we love our neighbours. If locking up pastors and seizing churches is for the good, it is Christlike. That’s how we love our neighbours. If getting a vaccine is pushed it is Christlike to get a vaccine, and we better tell everyone we got the vaccine because then they will know that we really love our neighbours.13 When God’s Law is eclipsed by natural law, anything natural man says is good is good no matter how many Bible verses point to the contrary.
This might give us some insight into the recent resurrection of Aquinas made popular. Sure, it could be a ruse from issues that matter, but even more so, according to Schaeffer, Aquinas’ thought can justify the wrong position on issues that matter.
- Francis Schaeffer, Escape from Reason, in vol. 1 The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1985), 209.
- Shaeffer, 211.
- Shaeffer, 211.
- Schaeffer, 211.
- Schaeffer, 212.
- Schaeffer, 217—218.
- Schaeffer, 218.
- Schaeffer, 220.
- Schaeffer, 260
- Schaeffer, 261.
- Schaeffer, 262.
- Schaeffer, 261.
- I’ve been consistently clear to my messaging that there is nothing wrong with getting a vaccine. But we dare not guilt people into getting a vaccine by calling it Christlike when the Bible never calls it Christlike. Rather, it’s a personal conscientious decision.