Apostate: What Kevin Swanson Gets Wrong About Thomas Aquinas

by Lana Hope cross posted from her blog Wide Open Ground

I am reading through Kevin Swanson’s latest book Apostate: The Men Who Destroyed the Christian West.

The first man on Swanson’s list is St. Thomas Aquinas. Oh, yes, according to Swanson, Aquinas is an apostate who destroyed the Christian west. In fact, St. Thomas was the foundation of our western apostasy and the decline of the Christian west. Quoting Swanson, “If the foundation was compromised, the building was doomed from the start.”

I agree that St. Thomas had a huge influence on the west, but if he wants to say Thomas destroyed the Christian west, Swanson would need a load of proof.

His proof?
Natural Revelation.

Oh, yes.

Thomas argued that Reason is a natural revelation as opposed to a special revelation. In others words, we can gather truth with our minds, such as learning truths about science and a large number of things (we could say, reason helps us live life); however, some truth (such as the Trinity), only comes through special revelation or faith.

APOSTATE

Because this would mean that man could build an accurate (or at least somewhat accurate) system of knowledge based on human reason in his fallen state.

And this is, according to Thomas, heretical.

There is a couple of ways to respond to this.

First, just what the heck.  Swanson says, “in a fundamental sense [the unbeliever] will think wrongly about everything.”

Folks, everything.

This is the typical fundie response for why everyone else is an idiot, but they are smart. I used to believe that only Christians were educated, too, so I know. But it’s a really shaky road to walk on because only a wimpy God would create a man who could not know anything without a belief in God.

Now  I am not a fan of Reason with a capital R myself, and I don’t claim medieval philosophy as my point of origin per se. So in a sense, yes, Reason has limits (although Thomas also admits these limits, for different reasons. He believed special revelation filled in the gaps whereas I’m always skeptical about reality although by no means do I believe that we can arrive at no truth).

Nevertheless, yes, I think it’s tacky to say that unbelievers can’t arrive at truth because FALL.

Second, Swanson really twists what Thomas argues. Quoting Swanson, “Contrary to what Aquinas taught, the Bible does not present two kinds of think or knowledge (Proverbs 2:1-6, Col. 2:1-3). There is only one source and one foundation of learning, and that is Jesus Christ.”

The thing is, maybe Thomas did distinguish between natural revelation and special revelation. But distinguish and separate are not the same verb, and also, Thomas believed that the source of reason and knowledge is the incarnate Christ.

I recommend Gibson’s Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, and Pieper’s Scholasticism. Incidently, Swanson did not provide any sources other than the Catholic Encyclopedia (and a quote where he disagrees with Peter Kreeft, a philosopher and Thomas scholar).

In this book, the scholar who has two PhDs, one of which is in philosophy, writes that “Faith and Reason were Interdependent Aspects of human knowing” for the scholastics.

In other words, they work together.

This idea that the scholastics were sitting around intentionally separating reason from faith is not exactly an accurate picture of Thomas or his contemporaries’ intent. Sure, Thomas believed that one does not inherently need Christian faith or special revelation to then arrive at some truth.  But his heart was certainly for reason and faith to intertwine,

Piepers argues from Thomas that “To be a person is to participate in one of the highest excellences of the divine being.”

Furthermore, none of this denies the source of knowledge and truth.  God is the source of our reason. God is the source of life. We don’t have to believe in him for this to be so so. I suspect that Thomas would agree that “there is only one source of learning.” We just may not all see that source.

This brings me to my next point.

Thirdly, whatever on the fall.

Reason certainly still works post-fall (if a fall ever existed in the first place).  As a skeptic, I don’t find that reason gives me certainty. But I still believe in logic, so I can meet Thomas half way here. The point is that yes, even if Reason or Logic or Math did bring absolute certainty, nobody said that imperfect people could perfectly utilize these tools.

Actually, that’s not true. A lot of the Enlightenment Rationalists said that reason brings certainty, and when Swanson charges them with this, okay, he’ll have some points.

But Thomas certainly knew that hell yea, we “fallen” people use Reason with our “fallen” souls.  In other words, Reason can’t cure our souls or our biased worldviews

Thomas had more faith in reason that I as a postmodern have. Thomast thought reason leads to the existence of God. However, this does not mean a fallen individual will choose to exercise reason towards God.

This, of course, as Thomas knew all too well, was the nature of grace. Where we lack, grace fills in the gap.

I think it’s worth dining on this point. As I said, I know Thomas had more faith in reason than me. But by no means does this make Thomas an apostate.  I admire Thomas for his zeal.

Swanson, in fact, jumps the other direction by saying that all reason is tainted by the fall such that, again quoting directly from Swanson, “the natural man’s reason has been clouded by layers upon layers of demonic deception (2 Cor. 4:4), and he is incapable of providing a solid basis for truth and ethics by his own reasning capabilities.”

I’ll give it to Swanson that Thomas would disagree with him here. However, Swanson does not make sense. If we are so deceived that we cannot provide a solid bases for any truth whatsoever, why is he not a skeptic? See, I recognize that our minds and senses fail us; I admit I’m a skeptic. Swanson ironically would agree with me for a different reason, yet  he somehow maintains that he is not a skeptic. How?

Of course, Swanson is a Calvinist. But if he really believes that one must have special revelation to know God, and if he rejects any reason or other means to understand the existence of God apart from special revelation, then mocking unbelievers would be hypocritical.

In other words, does Swanson believe that people are not Christians because apostates (and the rest of the world) deceives them, or does he think these individuals are not Christians because reason is tainted by the fall and they can’t see God? Or both? In this chapter, Swanson has ranted about the problem of reason without clarity while simultaneously charging Aquinas with something he never said.

Anyway, this is just a few points. Christopher also mentioned this. And R.C. Sproul likewise jumps to Aquinas’ defense. Also, see Ahab’s series Rewriting History where Swanson made similar claims.

If you are interested in a scholarly book on the Christian humanism, and a philosophical look on everything Swanson somehow missed, I recommend this book. I’ll likely quote from it in more posts to come.

Comments open below

Read everything by Lana Hope!

Lana Hope was homeschooled 1st-12th grade in a small town and rural culture. Involved in ATI, her life growing up was gendered, sheltered, and with a lot of shame and rules in disguise of Biblical principles and character qualities. After college Lana moved to SE Asia and began working with the abused, and upon discovering that the large world is not at all like she had been taught, she finally questioned it all, from Calvinism to the homeschool movement to the foundation of her Christian faith. Today Lana is a Christian Universalist, holds a B.A. in English, and is currently working on a M.A. in philosophy.  She blogs about the struggles she has faced leaving fundamentalism and homeschooling behind and how travel and missions has wrecked her life for good and bad at her blog www.wideopenground.com.

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