March 29, 2018

R.C. Sproul and Aquinas’ Nature and Grace

Stephen Nichols & R.C. Sproul
R.C. Sproul and Aquinas’ Nature and Grace

Stephen Nichols and R.C. Sproul discuss the apologetics of Thomas Aquinas, including single truth and the five ways.


STEPHEN NICHOLS: Here we are again in your library, Dr. Sproul. So, thanks for having us. We’re going to pull another book off the shelf. This is a name that I’ve heard you refer to from time to time. The spine reads Aquinas, On Nature and Grace. So, let’s talk a little bit about this book.

R.C. SPROUL: That book is from the Library of Christian Classics. It is just a brief section of the Summa Theologiae.

NICHOLS: The Summa is huge!

SPROUL: Yes. I like that particular volume, On Nature and Grace, for this reason: there is a tradition in Protestantism, and especially in evangelicalism, of believing that there was a radical difference between Augustine and Aquinas with respect to apologetics and natural theology. The argument is that Augustine gave us a synthesis between Christianity and Platonic philosophy, and Aquinas adjusted that to create a synthesis between Christianity and Aristotelianism. Aquinas was, as an apologist in his era, responding to Islamic philosophy.

NICHOLS: As I understand it, Aquinas’ teacher was Albertus Magnus, Albert the Great. And Albert the Great was influenced by a Muslim scholar named Averroes who had been translating much of Aristotle’s work into the Latin.

SPROUL: Yes, Muslims had their own renaissance.

NICHOLS: So, Aquinas was entering the University of Paris just as all these ideas were new and being discussed, right?

SPROUL: What he was dealing with was Averroes’ synthesis with the Islamic philosophy on the issue of so-called double truths. The idea of double truth was this: with respect to the relationship between faith and reason, or science and religion, you could hold two truths that are actually contradictory. Just to put it in modern categories, you’d say, “I believe that the origin of human life was a cosmic accident via microevolution on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays I believe that man came as a result of the purposed work of God’s creation, and on Sunday I rest.” The belief was that you could hold these two things together as truth. Aquinas was answering the idea of double truth.

NICHOLS: Yeah, it’s nonsense.

SPROUL: Here’s why there’s so much controversy and confusion: Aquinas also made a distinction between that which can be known of nature and that which can be known by grace; that which can be learned by scientific inquiry and that which can be learned by biblical studies. Then, he postulated what he called the articulus mixtus, the mixed articles—those articles that can be learned either from a study of nature or from a study of grace. For example, Francis Schaeffer is an evangelical, among many others including Barth and so on, who argued that it was Aquinas who separated nature and grace. Now, I was a great friend of Francis Schaeffer—we were personal friends—and this used to really bug me because I said, “This is exactly what Thomas Aquinas did not do.” He was distinguishing between nature and grace, not separating. In fact, his whole point against the integral Aristotelians, the Muslims, was not to separate them. You can’t separate them. What Aquinas said about the mixed articles is that you can learn about the nature of God either from general revelation (natural theology) or you can learn it from the Bible. The interesting thing to me is that, when he makes that defense, his principal source of citation is Augustine. He quotes Augustine directly as saying that apart from the light of revelation you can’t know anything, either nature or grace; nature is dependent upon divine revelation and the sciences are dependent upon divine revelation. Any knowledge is as dependent on revelation as our vision is dependent on light. Aquinas appeals to Augustine on that very point, and I’ve been like a voice crying out in the wilderness for years, saying that Aquinas did not separate nature and grace. At the same time, I also say that Aquinas had a strong influence on my understanding of apologetics. I was very much impressed, not only with Augustine’s preliminary work on apologetics, but also with Aquinas’, where he talks about the Five Ways, or the Five Proofs, for the existence of God. The strongest of these, I believe, is the argument from necessary being. That has had a tremendous influence on my apologetics.

NICHOLS: There is a great line you have underlined here: “If a man is to know any truth whatsoever, he needs divine help in order that his intellect be moved to its act by God.” And you write over here, in the margin, “Truth of nature and grace.” You know, when we talk about the revelation of God and nature and how God can be known through natural revelation or general revelation, we’re talking about the classical arguments for the existence of God. We’re talking about Aquinas’ so-called Five Ways, and we start with the necessity of being. This goes back to Aristotle, back to Plato, and this is very much at the heart of an apologetics approach that you are known for, that your name is actually associated with, classical apologetics.


NICHOLS: So, this book and Aquinas’ thought are very crucial to you in terms of one of your contributions?


NICHOLS: One of the criticisms of this nature-and-grace approach from Aquinas that also arises from this book is, What do we do with grace in terms of salvific or soteric knowledge of God? Here we might see a distinction between Aquinas and the Reformers that would follow.

SPROUL: Oh, absolutely.

NICHOLS: So, would you like to comment on that?

SPROUL: Yes, although I don’t think you see as much of a distinction between the two as many people think because, remember, Aquinas was writing significantly before the Reformers. There are those who believe and argue (I haven’t taken the position, yet) that had Aquinas been alive in the sixteenth century, he probably would have sided with Luther because, I mean, Aquinas’ idea is that all salvation fundamentally depends upon grace. Now, that would also be echoed in Trent in the sixteenth century. You can’t get justification without grace, or without faith, or without Christ.

NICHOLS: It’s just what gets added to that equation that’s the problem.

SPROUL: It’s what gets added. But again, Aquinas—even then—was saying that even merit, when we speak of merit, was dependent upon grace. How that is worked out and fleshed out becomes an ongoing debate even within Roman Catholicism.

NICHOLS: Well, Dr. Sproul, it’s been a pleasure getting to talk with you about this great book. I’m just enjoying sitting here looking at it. I’ve noticed that you’ve not only turned over a few pages, but you got a little aggressive with your blue pen, and it looks like you’ve got some sort of red marker and have little red asterisks all the way through it.

SPROUL: Yes, I do. Those are super important points.

NICHOLS: So, we have the important points and the “super important points.” Well, thank you very much. It’s always a pleasure to visit with you, Dr. Sproul.

SPROUL: Thank you, Steve.