Friday, May 13, 2011

St Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther

I am still thinking about church history. Carl Trueman is a great guy to read when it comes to that. He is protestant but he has lots of good insights. He said something recently that related to the Luther, St Thomas Aquinas thought I was having:
Any intellectual historian of any merit will tell you that the last 1,000 years in the West have only produced two moments of paradigm shifting significance, and neither of them was the Reformation.  The first was the impact of the translation into Latin of Aristotle's metaphysical works.  This demanded a response from the thirteenth century church.  The response, most brilliantly represented by Thomas Aquinas, revolutionized education, transformed the philosophical landscape, opened up fruitful new avenues for theological synthesis, and set the basic shape of university education until the early eighteenth century.  Within this intellectual context, the Reformation was to represent a critical development of Augustinian anti-Pelagianism in terms of the understanding of the church and of salvation, but it did not represent quite the foundational paradigm shift that is often assumed.
It is interesting that a protestant sees the development God brought thought Aquinas and Aristotle as much more important than the reformation. That is the positive changes were much more significant. The negative changes from the reformation in terms of the stunning loss of church unity were severe. Nothing St Thomas did was anywhere near the unqualified disaster that Luther left behind in that area. What Luther brought was a rediscovery of something the church had already learned, namely that Pelagianism is wrong. The church needed to be reminded of this truth but not at the cost of knocking down a large number of other truths. So Luther was hugely destructive and made only a minor positive contribution by comparison.

Looking at history this way makes more and more sense to me. The combination of faith and reason that St Thomas blessed the world with was just too much. That the light of Christ got brighter and people ran. I sense this whenever I read Thomist thinkers. There is a grace there that demands a reaction. Do you want to think like the angelic doctor or are you going to dismiss him as too … too something? William of Ockham was one of the first in the ladder camp. Luther followed him. They refused to think in the categories and accept the reasoning of St Thomas.

The trouble is that when God offers more of Himself to us and we reject that offer we don’t end up in the same place as before. We get out of the mode of wanting as much of God as we can have and being willing to pay any price. We start to see our opinions and thought patterns as something we don’t want to surrender. It is too humiliating to accept that even these are soaked in sin and must be transformed by God’s grace. It is too personal. We are afraid we will get lost. But we can never get lost in God. We are because God wills us to be. So thinking more like God will never cause us to lose our identity. On the contrary, nothing could be more true to yourself than learning to match you intellect to that of your creator. Because God is the author of your essence He can make you more yourself than you can be on your own.

This view of history would put the reformation into the same category as the enlightenment. Trueman’s other big even of the last 1000 years. They would be seen as different ways of running away from the revelation of Christ being unrolled by the church. The developments end up being reductions and simplifications. From the sola’s of the reformation to the increasing anti-supernatural bias of recent centuries we have seen the big picture simplified by merely declaring large segments of human endeavor to be unimportant. But parallel to all this, the Catholic faith has continued to develop. This synthesis of Greek philosophy and Jesus’ revelation has continued to grow and continues to be a light calling those who want to embrace the fullness of truth no matter the cost.

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