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The Ghost of Thomas Aquinas

“I ain’t afraid of no ghost!” That was the refrain in the 1984 hit song “Ghostbusters,” which was part of the soundtrack to the comedy film by the same name. It concerns a group of scientists in New York City who start what amounts to a paranormal pest-control business, catching pesky poltergeists. Humorous hijinks and catastrophic destruction ensue, but all I remember about the end of the movie is a giant marshmallow man lumbering down the streets of New York. The movie has nothing to do with Thomas Aquinas, but the ghost of Aquinas has been under attack for some time, and whenever I think of people fighting ghosts, I think of Ghostbusters.

In order to explain what I mean, I need to go back to the early twentieth century and John Murray. Murray was the professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary from 1930 to 1966. During his time there, one of his major emphases was the idea that Reformed systematic theology must be “radically non-speculative.” For Murray, this meant that all theology should be grounded in the sound exegesis of Scripture. This is simply another way of emphasizing a point that goes back to early Reformed theology, which taught that the Bible is the principium cognoscendi externum (external principle or foundation of knowing) for theology. As long as the phrase meant that, there were no problems.

Under the influence of others, however, the term “radically non-speculative” theology gradually morphed and began to carry additional connotations that did not go back to early Reformed theology but instead created serious tensions with that theology. “Radically non-speculative” theology in its modified form entails ridding Reformed theology of any hint of Thomistic influence – any influence of Thomas Aquinas. As a friend has put it, it is an attempt “to exorcise the ghost of Aquinas” from Reformed theology.

Many Reformed Christians will immediately wonder why this would be a problem. Wasn’t Thomas Aquinas a thirteenth-century Roman Catholic theologian, and didn’t Reformed theology grow out of a protest against Roman Catholicism? Yes. And yes. But the problem arises because Reformed theology was not part of the Radical Reformation. It was not a restorationist attempt to do away with everything in the existing medieval church and start from scratch. It was an attempt to reform the doctrine and practice of the existing church.

The Reformed churches, for example, taught classical theism and Nicene Trinitarianism. They did not reject the doctrine of the Trinity found summarized in the Nicene Creed. They also did not reject Chalcedonian Christology. In short, they left the medieval doctrine of God intact. They retained that part of the medieval theological inheritance. When the Reformed theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (the Reformed scholastics) wrote their theological textbooks, their sections on the doctrine of God often borrow extensively from Thomas Aquinas. They maintain the same classical Trinitarian theism that reached its high point of medieval development in his work. That doctrine of God is also found in the Reformed confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including the Westminster Confession of Faith. Of course, they rejected those ideas in Aquinas that they believed contradicted Scripture (e.g., his doctrine of grace, his sacramental theology, etc.), but they did not reject classical Trinitarian theism.

What is the point?

If one adopts a “radically non-speculative” theological method that entails exorcising the ghost of Aquinas, then to the degree that one is successful in this methodology, one will find himself or herself in radical tension and discontinuity with the doctrine of God found in sixteenth and seventeenth century Reformed theology and the Reformed confessions that expressed it. In other words, in an attempt to be more consistently Reformed, this “radically non-speculative” approach, if successful, ironically results in a doctrine of God that is radically inconsistent with the Reformed confessions.

That a rejection of the doctrine of God found in the Reformed confessions can happen even in the Reformed churches that adhere to those confessions is not a mere conjecture. That it is connected with a particular understanding of "radically non-speculative" theology is also not mere conjecture. As a number of theologians have pointed out (See this volume, for example), the rejection of the confessionally Reformed doctrine of God (i.e. classical Trinitarian theism) has already been going on for years.


Public domain image of 15th century manuscript, Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae (prima pars) - Basel, Universitätsbibliothek


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