Thomas Aquinas and the Neo-Thomist Tradition: A Christian-Philosophical Assessment, written by B.J. van der Walt

In: Philosophia Reformata
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The Institute for Contemporary Christianity in Africa, Potchefstroom, South Africa, 2017. 242 pages. isbn 978-1-86822-685-6.

Thomas Aquinas has been something of a bête noire among Reformed scholars. To some extent this is justified—however, for the most part, he has been unread and ignored. Not so for van der Walt. Aquinas was the subject of his ma and PhD work. His master’s thesis was completed under the supervision of J.A.L. Taljaard (1915–1994)1 and dealt with the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas; his PhD dissertation entitled “Natural theology with special reference to Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and the ‘Synopsis Purioris Theologiae’—a philosophical investigation” was also supervised by Taljaard. Van der Walt, then, is no stranger to Aquinas. He began to study Aquinas because he believed that “a synthetic tradition of nearly 2000 years (starting with the early Church Fathers and systematised by Aquinas in the Middle Ages) was still with us” (Bishop 2010, xliv).

Thomas Aquinas and the Neo-Thomist Tradition represents a re-examination of Aquinas, and to do so, van der Walt has gone to the source. In light of recent studies and his rereading of Aquinas, what we have here is a first-rate discussion of the work and influence of Aquinas. This re-evaluation is important as Aquinas’s influence is not only in the past and among Catholic scholars, but is also felt today among the Radical Orthodoxy of John Milbank and his followers, and in Richard A. Muller’s Reformed Scholasticism project. More surprisingly, as van der Walt illustrates, Aquinas has also influenced some reformational philosophers.

The great strength of this book is that it goes back to Aquinas’s own writings, primarily his Summa Contra Gentiles. Secondary sources are kept to a minimum in the first part of the book, as van der Walt wants Aquinas to “speak” in his own words. However, this is both a strength and a weakness: a strength, in that it allows Aquinas to “speak for himself”; and a weakness, in that other interpretations of Aquinas are largely ignored. The latter chapters, however, do examine and critique modern secondary sources on neo-Thomism.

Van der Walt’s main thesis is that the idea of law (nomology) plays a key role in Aquinas’s mesh of complex ideas. This is a fascinating thesis and one that is supported by discussion of Aquinas’s ontology, anthropology, epistemology, and his views on providence. This thesis is contrary to the approach of another reformational Aquinas scholar, namely, Jan Aertsen. Aertsen sees a cyclic motive as Aquinas’s main theme (see, for example, Aertsen 1991). Van der Walt briefly takes issue with this—more of a critique of Aertsen’s view would have been valuable.

Particularly interesting is chapter 5 where he explores Aquinas’s view of providence. Here we see clearly how Aquinas is a synthesis thinker, synthesizing Scripture with Aristotelian philosophy. Such an approach leads to a dead end. Aquinas sees God as immovable and immutable; but this then means that the sense of guilt and responsibility that humans have is inexplicable. Aquinas’s deterministic doctrine of predestination is unable to reconcile divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Aquinas’s God is a cause; thus, not only does God become something created, but he also becomes the cause of evil.

Van der Walt’s book is an excellent critique of Aquinas. In addition, it shows how the legacy of Aquinas’s approach has influenced contemporary approaches. Aquinas’s Christianizing of Hellenism has meant the Hellenization of the Christian faith. This is the result of a synthesis philosophy with its concomitant methods of exegesis-eisegesis, its paradoxical method, and its adoption of a nature-grace approach. In chapter 6 van der Walt examines these methods, along with the different phases of Aquinas’s synthetic accommodation of Scripture and Aristotelianism, and the question whether a synthetic approach is inevitable. He looks briefly at the approaches of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven (who respond no), Klapwijk (who responds with a tentative yes), and Helleman (see, e.g., Helleman 1994) who is sympathetic with a Hellenizing approach. Helleman, van der Walt maintains, sees culture as neutral, thus denying a Christian approach to culture. Van der Walt advocates the thetic-critical approach of Vollenhoven which he develops in the subsequent chapters.

Chapter 7 examines the legacy of neo-Thomist thought. Here he looks at its influence on Roman Catholic scholars such as Rahner, von Balthasar, Kung, Schillebeeckx, and Schoonenberg, as well on the Radical Orthodox advocates, and on Reformed theology as epitomized in the Synod of Dort. The latter is an important point and one that van der Walt has dealt with previously (van der Walt 2011). Here he outlines some of these influences—but this key insight could have been developed more fully in this volume.

In this chapter he also discusses the problems in the mapping of the history of neo-Thomism over the last seven centuries post-Aquinas; he mentions, for example, the approach of Benedict Ashley, op, who identifies several types of neo-Thomism—e.g., Platonizing, Aristotelian, Augustinian, existentialist, phenomenological, and analytical neo-Thomism. Despite the varieties, van der Walt maintains it is too vague a categorization. He finds a similar fault in Craig V. Mitchell’s theories. Mitchell subdivides medieval philosophy into Islamic, Jewish, and Christian philosophy; among the latter he distinguishes between Augustinian, Franciscan, and Dominican philosophy (which includes Aquinas). Van der Walt perhaps dismisses too easily Ashley’s approach. And Mitchell’s approach is inevitably simplified as he wrote a semi-popular Chart of Philosophy and Philosophers. Nevertheless, it does show the need for a more nuanced approach.

This sets the scene for chapter 8, which introduces a more suitable method of classification. Here van der Walt utilizes Vollenhoven’s problem-historical approach to analyse neo-Thomism. This final chapter serves both as an overview of neo-Thomism and as an excellent example of how Vollenhoven’s approach can be applied. In Vollenhoven’s terminology, Aquinas’s philosophy is purely cosmological, dualistic, vertical partial universalism, and a subsistence theory. Such terms may seem daunting to those who are not familiar with Vollenhoven’s problem-historical method, but van der Walt provides a helpful introduction to them. He concludes the chapter and the book with a short—perhaps, too short—reformational response.

There are 31 pages of bibliography, grouped according to chapter. The bibliography might have been more useful if it was collated as a whole. There is a useful appendix with annotated images of engravings that illustrate the life of Aquinas. Unfortunately, some of the images are too dark for the reader to see much detail.

Van der Walt has also shown that the synthetic tradition epitomized by Aquinas is, sadly, still with us. As van der Walt writes in his reformational response (196):

The question is, however, what a truly biblically-reformational view would entail which could take the place of the Neo-Thomist idea of nature-grace. What should a Christian’s relation be towards the increasingly secular thinking and culture in which he/she lives nowadays? What is the relation between creation and salvation? It is clear that at the end of this investigation there are still a number of unanswered questions which call for urgent further reflection.

These are important questions indeed; and they can only be answered by an integral way of thinking. It is such an integral way of thinking that is epitomized by the work of van der Walt.

This book will be of immeasurable help to those wanting to understand Aquinas and neo-Thomism. It also provides an exemplary model of the application of Vollenhoven’s method.

References

  • Aertsen J.A. (1991). Thomas Aquinas (1224/5–1274). The natural desire for knowledge and its supernatural fulfillment. In: J. Klapwijk , S. Griffioen , and G. Groenewoud , eds., Bringing Into Captivity Every Thought: Capita Selecta in the History of Christian Evaluations of Non-Christian Philosophy, Lanham, md: University Press of America, pp. 95122.

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  • Bishop S. (2010). Interview with Bennie van der Walt. Koers—Bulletin for Christian Scholarship 75 (1), pp. xlilxvii.

  • Helleman W.E. , ed. (1994). Hellenization Revisited: Shaping a Christian Response within the Greco-Roman World. Lanham, md: University Press of America.

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  • Van der Walt B.J. (2011). Flagging philosophical minefields at the Synod of Dort (1618–1619)—reformed Scholasticism reconsidered. Koers—Bulletin for Christian Scholarship 76 (3), pp. 505538.

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For information on Taljaard, an important but often ignored Vollenhovian philosopher, see http://www.allofliferedeemed.co.uk/taljaard.htm (accessed August 20, 2017).

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

  • Aertsen J.A. (1991). Thomas Aquinas (1224/5–1274). The natural desire for knowledge and its supernatural fulfillment. In: J. Klapwijk , S. Griffioen , and G. Groenewoud , eds., Bringing Into Captivity Every Thought: Capita Selecta in the History of Christian Evaluations of Non-Christian Philosophy, Lanham, md: University Press of America, pp. 95122.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bishop S. (2010). Interview with Bennie van der Walt. Koers—Bulletin for Christian Scholarship 75 (1), pp. xlilxvii.

  • Helleman W.E. , ed. (1994). Hellenization Revisited: Shaping a Christian Response within the Greco-Roman World. Lanham, md: University Press of America.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Van der Walt B.J. (2011). Flagging philosophical minefields at the Synod of Dort (1618–1619)—reformed Scholasticism reconsidered. Koers—Bulletin for Christian Scholarship 76 (3), pp. 505538.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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