Faith and Reason with Aquinas and Sproul

There are ongoing debates within Christendom regarding apologetics methods. For now, I’m going to forgo the comparison of the various methods and explain one aspect of Classical Apologetics. Within the umbrella of Classical Apologetics, there are some variations, so I will keep the focus in this short blog post on St. Thomas Aquinas.

Intro to Natural Theology

In Summa Contra Gentiles Thomas Aquinas laid out the argument that some truths about God exceed human reason, yet some are apprehended through natural reason, like the existence of God. When we understand the substance of something, we understand the characteristics belonging to that thing. When understanding the substance of a table, for example, humans can know the characteristics concerning its shape, color, design, and so forth. This is not so with understanding God since He is not a material thing that we can examine through our senses. We are not able to comprehend the divine substance through natural reasoning. What can be done through natural reasoning is use our senses to know that there is a divine being who exists. As a Biblical scholar, Aquinas would have been familiar with the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans when he wrote, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen.”

Mediate or Immediate?

That verse alone has been hotly debated by faithful Christians with the focal question being is knowledge of God mediate or immediate. In general, Presuppositionalists say that such knowledge is immediate. I have heard Evangelicals, though not serious Presups, talk about humans having a God-shaped hole. This is a silly and an inadequate explanation of immediate knowledge, but I’m using it because it paints a vivid picture that many readily recognize and understand. Immediate knowledge is knowledge that is inherent in all humans impressed by God on our consciousness. It states that we are born with a sense that God exists. Mediate natural theology refers to knowledge via a medium, which would be through nature. R.C. Sproul wrote, “By viewing nature, the mind is able to know God by means of nature.” (Classical Apologetics, p. 44)

I could write an entire post explaining mediate knowledge and might do so in the future. For our purposes today, I will point out that Romans 1 plainly states that we can see God’s works in His creation and that is why man is without excuse. “The revelation of God is mediate, but it is so manifest and so clear that it does not necessitate a complex theoretical reasoning process that could be achieved only by a group of geniuses. If God’s general revelation is in fact ‘general,’ in that it is plain enough for all to see clearly without complicated cosmological argumentation, then it may even be said to be self-evident.” (46) Even though Sproul recognized that “mediate natural theology is ‘immediately’ recognizable,” (47) he also knew that people suppress this knowledge in their unrighteousness, as Paul taught. That is why we turn to Aquinas’s reasoning. It is “part of the unmasking process of those who refuse to acknowledge their natural knowledge of God.” (47)

Transcending Human Reason

According to Aquinas, there is a twofold truth concerning human understanding of the divine: that which can be apprehended through natural reason and that which cannot. This does not mean that reason and faith are at odds, but that there are limitations to what we know through our senses and our ability to contemplate what is learned through those senses. Aquinas posited that faith in God transcends human reason without abandoning reason and that God revealed Himself through the scriptures and through grace so that we are able to transcend beyond the fallible knowledge of our senses.

Even pagan philosophers understood that there are things of a higher nature beyond the senses and sought virtues to help them attain the higher good. Aristotle said that even though we know little about higher substances, that little is loved and desired more than all the knowledge we have of less noble substances. What God has revealed and the transcendence that men seek show that what Christians hold by faith is not at odds with natural reason, and Aquinas went so far as to make the bold claim that what is known by faith cannot be false since falsity opposes truth, and what God reveals can only be true.

Next week I will pit Aquinas against Kant to show the fallibility in Kant’s reasoning when he attacked Aquinas’s five theistic proofs.

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