Thomism: A Response to Douglas Wilson

Thomism: A Response to Douglas Wilson

William C. Roach, PhD

Douglas Wilson is a well-known pastor and theologian. He has appeared on major news outlets, evangelical conferences, YouTube, and other social media platforms. The influence of his ministry has been felt both in America and overseas. I write as someone who is happy to have benefited from Wilson’s ministry, and I am more than willing to fellowship with him as a brother in Christ and a true spiritual leader. For example, no one has sounded the alarm concerning many of the most pressing social issues of our day better than Douglas Wilson. Where would we be without the wisdom and pen of Wilson during Covid, BLM, the Woke goddess, and much more? Where would we be without Blog and Mablog, No Quarter November, and his beneficial sermons? The answer is evident: We would all be at a loss without Wilson’s ministry in these areas. We need to give credit to whom credit is due and respect for whom respect is due. Wilson does good work and God has used him to serve the body of Christ.

Even as it relates to this current “debate” over Thomism, I believe respect should be given to the interlocuters in the discussion. I plan to extend that same respect to Wilson because his article extended that charity to his Thomistic brethren. Unfortunately, this mutual respect has not been extended by all and the debate has turned into a dumpster fire that characterizes so much of internet polemics. Note some of the things Wilson has said about Thomists: First, he is “happy to include Thomists as abiding within the Christian pale, and more than willing to fellowship with them as brothers and sisters in Christ.” Second, Wilson fellowshipped with R. C. Sproul, who was a well-known Thomist. Third, Wilson was willing to speak at conferences with Thomists.

In short, the pastoral application many people in this debate, regardless of which side you fall on is this: Are you willing to extend these same graces to people who differ with you over Thomism? Would you no longer speak at a conference with a figure such as John Gerstner or R. C. Sproul? Conversely, would Thomists extend those same graces to those who differ over Thomism? Would you no longer speak at a conference with men such as Cornelius Van Til or Greg Bahnsen?

Point 1: Simplicity of God and the Simplicity of the Gospel

Wilson is correct to note that there are primary issues which have greater significance upon our overall theology than do other issues. At the top of that list is our doctrine of God. Even Aquinas claims, “it belongs to the wise man to consider the highest causes.” Modern-day evangelicalism has felt the effects of monkeying with the doctrine of God. For example, the Evangelical Theological Society was split apart over the topic of Open Theism. Figures such as Gregory Boyd and Clark Pinnock championed a view that claimed God does not and cannot know future contingents. Figures such as Norman Geisler (ardent Thomist BTW), stood up and opposed Clark Pinnock and other Open Theists. Unfortunately, when ETS voted on the matter, those who favored academic innovation over orthodoxy, or fraternity over orthodoxy, or basically anything else over orthodoxy, were able to secure Open Theism as a valid view of God. In doing so, regrettably, the society affirmed a heretical view of God and undermined their commitment to theological orthodoxy. In response, many figures left ETS and organizations such as the International Society of Christian Apologetics were formed. In short, the battle for God is of the utmost importance affecting our worship, view of Scripture, assurance of salvation, hermeneutics, and ethics.

Wilson is also right to note that all classical theists affirm the classical attributes of God, including divine simplicity. He defines simplicity to mean that God is not the sum of His parts or a composite being. Wilson goes on to claim, “But there are ways to affirm this which go too far, and which threaten the simplicity of the gospel.” As I read this line, I thought to myself, “Give examples, please.” I can only speculate about what Wilson is actually claiming here and it is evident he is committing a fallacy of equivocation on the word “simplicity.” Given the context of the article, I assume Wilson believes Aquinas’s doctrine of divine simplicity somehow threatens the simplicity of the gospel. In fact, I want to know how Aquinas’s doctrine of divine simplicity is a necessary and sufficient condition for denying the unvarnished Protestant gospel. Is there something analytically contained within Aquinas’s view that somehow undermines justification by faith alone?

Moreover, there is a general issue that seems to arise concerning “Aquinas’s view of simplicity.” It is suggested that Aquinas somehow revolutionized the doctrine of simplicity contrary to his predecessors. It is also suggested that Aquinas’s view is analytically opposed to the so-called “biblical view of simplicity.” Specifically, it is claimed that Aquinas’s approach fulfills the modal collapse. I have specifically responded to these claims elsewhere (see my response here), so I will not repeat myself. However, it should be noted that Aquinas did not develop, make up, or create a new doctrine of simplicity. Rather, Aquinas received the classic doctrine of simplicity from figures such as Augustine, Anslem, and others. Aquinas may have expressed the view in a more concise and logical form, but he did not create a new doctrine of simplicity. To make that claim is historically and factually incorrect.

Point 2: Aristotle and Divine Immobility

I concur with Wilson that we should honor Aristotle as someone who was beyond brilliant despite the fact that he was a pagan. Are there broad similarities between Aristotle and Aquinas? Yes. But, did Aquinas uncritically adopt each of Aristotle’s pagan views apart from or in direct contradiction with divine revelation? No. In fact, books such as Being and Essence, were written to show how Aquinas fundamentally differed with Aristotle on key aspects of metaphysics. For example, just to name a few. The whole concept of being and how things differ by being is an innovative concept fundamentally different from Aristotle’s notion that things differ by non-being. Aquinas also affirmed the world was created by way of efficient causality, whereas Aristotle affirmed some version of final causality. Aristotle affirmed multiple unmoved movers, whereas Aquinas affirmed monotheism or One Unmoved Mover (namely God). In short, Aquinas may have assumed aspects of Aristotle’s metaphysical assumptions, but Aquinas did not uncritically accept them, especially when they directly contradicted divine revelation in Scripture. Rather, Aquinas would correct, rebuke, refute, and respond to many false pagan views of God, humanity, and so forth. In fact, the whole Summa Theologicae and Summa Contra Gentiles (emphasis on the Gentiles, those pagan thinkers such as Aristotle), was a response to pagan views of God, humanity, salvation, and so forth.

Wilson also notes that there is a vast difference between Medieval and Reformed scholasticism. He claims the main difference is the Reformed argued from scriptural premises, whereas the Medieval must have been arguing from unscriptural views of God. There are several things to say about this. First, I agree there are significant differences between Medieval and Reformed Scholasticism. I would consider myself a Reformed Scholastic because of the key issues surrounding Reformed orthodoxy and the Protestant Reformation. Second, many of the key issues between the Medieval and Reformed Scholastics were not about the doctrine of God. In fact, what has been demonstrated by many competent scholars is that the Protestant Reformers received as biblical the Medieval view of God and their understanding of classical theism, including divine simplicity. This is evidenced by many of the key figures including Francis Turretin, Peter Vermingi, John Owen, and Petrus Van Mastricht. It is also evidenced by the fact that natural theology and classical theism were put into many of the historic Reformed Confessions.

Wilson offers one significant example of what he believes shows a key difference between Aquinas and the Reformed Scholastics—the assumption that God is immobile. This claim of divine immobility has been championed most by Jeffrey Johnson and reiterated by many other figures. If this assumption were correct, I would stand with them against Aquinas. However, this assumption is incorrect and a false interpretation of Aquinas at best and a caricature and straw man at worst. Noted Thomisic scholar Edward Feser responded to the charge of divine immobility. Instead of restating Feser’s arguments, I would encourage everyone to read his response to Jeffery Johnson. Wilson, much like Johnson, claims that divine immobility is incompatible with the God of the Bible. But, as Feser has shown, Aquinas is not committed to this notion of “divine immobility. This criticism is directed at a straw man of Aquinas.

Point 3: Thomism and Reformed Orthodoxy

Wilson claims the resurgence of Thomism throughout the Reformed world has grown pretty aggressive to the point of claiming that Thomism equals orthodoxy. Wilson claims:

But if Thomism is the touchstone of orthodoxy, then where does that leave theologians like Luther, who hated Aristotle, Melancthon, Calvin, many of the Puritans, Dabney, Hodge, Warfield, Bavinck, Berkof, Vos, Van Til, Schaeffer, Packer, et al.)? Why can I not hang with these guys and still be a classical theist? I think we should.

Wilson is correct there has been a resurgence of Thomism throughout the Reformed world. While this is true, and there are varying degrees of aggression, one must ask: Isn’t there just as much or more aggression against Thomism throughout the Reformed world? Is not the charge of following an immobile pagan god an aggressive attack against Thomists? What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. To the charge of aggression, we cry Tu Quoque!

R. C. Sproul ran into this throughout much of his ministry because there was a visceral hatred of Aquinas amongst the Reformed world. When Sproul would preach in the churches, he would give them Aquinas’s arguments but cite Augustine (see here). Moreover, while it is true that Luther showed disdain for Aristotle in certain areas, it must be noted he also used and appropriated Aristotle in other areas. Luther said, “Aristotle [wrote & taught] excellently & very learnedly about ethics. Indeed, the books of both [Cicero & Aristotle] are very useful & of the highest necessity for the conduct of this life.” (1543; WA 40/III:608). Luther also appropriated Aristotle concerning issues related to science and origins of the universe.

Wilson lists several well-known figures throughout the Reformed world: Calvin, Puritans, Hodge, Warfield, Bavinck, Berkof, etc. By listing these figures he suggests that they all openly opposed Thomism per se. There is a general sense in which Wilson is correct but the claim is clouded and in need of clarification. The clarification comes down to a definition of terms. What do you mean by Thomism? Is Thomism a philosophy, theology, or both? Can someone agree with Aquinas’s approach to natural theology and differ with him on the sacraments? Can someone side with Aquinas, who denied the assumption of Mary? Many of these types of questions seem to go unanswered or disregarded. Those who follow Reformed Scholasticism do not follow Aquinas into many of his Roman Catholic theological overtures. But they do follow Aquinas insofar as he is a philosophical realist who offers us first principles that substantiate a robust approach to metaphysical and epistemological realism. Aquinas’s philosophical prolegomena is viewed as a more robust approach than the prevalent philosophical idealism, transcendentalism, and mediating approaches offered by modern Reformed and non-Reformed theologians that undermine a classical view of reality and classical theism.

Point 4: Thomism, Open Theism, and a Frozen-Infinite-Deity

Wilson is correct that many are looking to Thomism to combat Open Theism. They are also looking to Thomism to combat theistic mutualism, transcendental reasoning, idealism, and much more. Wilson fears that “Thomism rigorously pursued will result in a slab of frozen-infinite-deity that open theists have confused with the God of the Bible.” While it is true that Open Theists have made this charge, it is also true that figures such as Wilson and Jeffrey Johnson make the same claim when they charge Thomism with divine immobility. Because this caricature was briefly discussed in Point 2, we will not discuss it again here. Let it be said: Whether this charge comes from Open Theists, Wilson, Johnson, or others, it is a caricature strawman of both Classical Theism and Thomism. The charge that Thomism necessarily entails divine immobility was refuted by Edward Feser (see here). Another resource that refutes this claim is titled, The Battle For God: Responding to the Challenge of Neotheism by Norman Geisler, H. Wayne House, and Max Herrera.

Point 5: Thomism and Classical Theism

Wilson is concerned with the charge that classical theism is Thomism. He states, “While I believe that Thomists are classical theists, I want to maintain that a more consistent classical theism is to be found elsewhere. There is a more excellent way.” He also states, “there is a classical theism that begins and ends with scriptural exegesis, and not with Aristotle’s idea of the divine.” In this section, one must note that Wilson claims there is some common ground between his view of classical theism and the classical theism of Thomism. If Wilson affirms A, and Wilson claims Thomists affirm A, then we must ask: How do they differ in respect to A? In other words, if Wilson affirms classical theism and Wilson claims Thomists affirm classical theism, then we must ask: How do they [Wilson and Thomists] differ in respect to classical theism? There must be a difference between A, with A being classical theism. However, what is the essential difference? Wilson suggests the difference is that his view of classical theism begins and ends with Scripture, whereas Thomistic approaches begin and end with Aristotle.

Even with this distinction in mind I am left wondering what the essential difference is. Is the difference divine immobility? Because if that is the difference that is a false charge; hence, no difference. Is the essential difference the functional role of Scripture? Granted, there is a difference between Roman Catholic and Protestant approaches to Scripture; however, for Reformed Scholastics, we readily embrace a theology rooted and grounded in Scripture as our highest authority. Does Thomism uncritically bend its knee to Aristotle? No, Aquinas and many Thomists rejects numerous aspects of Aristotle, including key principles of his metaphysic of finite and infinite being, his view of humanity, creation, and much more. In short, it seems like the essential difference between Wilson’s view of classical theism and the Thomistic approach to classical theism is whether or not one can engage in the task of natural theology.

If we cannot engage in natural theology, why not? Where does Wilson get that from Scripture? Romans 1 seems to offer a clear account that Christians can engage in the task of natural theology and this approach to natural theology was adopted by many Reformed theologians (see: Classical Apologetics by Sproul and Gerstner, where they substantiate these claims). It seems like the first major criticisms of natural theology arose not out of Reformed orthodoxy, but from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and mediated down through subsequent Reformed thinkers (who embraced Kant’s metaphysic and epistemology) opposed to natural theology. So, the charge is that Thomists undermine biblical classical theism because of an adherence unto Aristotle. However, the charge labeled against Wilson’s approach undermines classical theism because of an adherence unto the transcendental method of Immanuel Kant and his disdain for natural theology.

One of the essential differences between Thomists and Presuppositionalists is their metaphysical distinctions between realism vs idealism, realism vs transcendental reasoning, and the functional role of natural theology. So, why are so many people within the Reformed camp returning to Aquinas and his philosophical realism? It is because they believe it best represents what Romans 1 teaches, offers a proper understanding of God’s creation, and it foregoes many of the errors of modern transcendental idealistic philosophy. In short, they claim Nein to approaches that deny realism and natural theology because the Bible claims Ja!

Point 6: Knowledge of God’s Nature

On the one hand, Wilson claims that Thomists are wrongly trying to peer into the ad intra nature of God. Thomists are falsely telling us what God’s nature is in-and-of-itself apart from divine revelation. On the other hand, Scott Oliphint claims that Thomism leads to agnosticism because Thomists claim they cannot know directly the ad intra nature of God. So, which one is it? Do Thomists claim they can know directly the ad intra nature of God or not?

All Christians believe that God is known via divine revelation, including Thomists. God must disclose his personal privacy concerning himself unto humanity. Apart from divine revelation we are left without knowledge of God. God reveals himself in his Word and in his world. God is known through special and general revelation. Special revelation is given through the Bible to the people of God. General revelation is given to humanity through nature. So, the issue is not that Thomists claim God is known apart from divine revelation. Rather, the issue is that Thomists believe in natural theology and some Reformed theologians deny the proper task of natural theology.

However, the issue of natural theology is not the primary topic of point 6 (including the issues of the noetic effects and sin and much more). Rather, the proper topic is whether or not humanity can know directly the nature of God. Thomists make a distinction between demonstratio proper quid and demonstratio proper quia. They claim God is known from effects to cause, not that the whole of the cause is known in-and-of-itself. We do not know the whole essence of God. We know true things about the essence of God, but we do not know the essence of God exhaustively. Finite beings have a finite understanding of an infinite God. Finite beings have a finite but true understanding of an infinite God via natural theology. Finite beings have a finite but true understanding of an infinite God via the Bible.

Point 7: Empiricism vs Aristotle’s Empiricism

Just like one can be rational without being a Rationalist, one can embrace a posteriori reasoning without becoming an Empiricist. Not all people who fall into rationalist thinking are dogmatic Rationalists. Not all people who embrace the notion that knowledge comes from the senses fall into the trappings of modern-day empiricism.

Wilson seems to pick a line from David Hume and attribute that concept to Aristotle. The net effect of modern empiricism has been the Skepticism of David Hume (aka., the famous Scottish Skeptic). Hume used a billiard ball analogy to suggest that a consistent empiricism does not map out the real world. For Hume, consistent empiricism does not allow you to directly view things such as causality (namely, one billiard ball hitting another billiard ball). Rather, you see one event followed by another event. Even if you get a super microscope and try to see two objects hit one another you will never empirically view “causality.” Hence, we trust them by customary conjunction, but down deep we know that things such as causality do not really tell us about the way the world operates.

The issue at hand is that one needs to make a serious distinction between Hume’s empiricism and Aristotle’s empiricism. Hume’s view was based upon a nominalistic and mechanistic view of the world. Hume’s footnote to the broader Platonic tradition is that he denied forms per se and sought to create an empiricism in accordance with that nominalistic and naturalistic understanding of the world. Aristotle’s footnote to the broader Platonic tradition is that forms do exist, and they exist in material things. The human mind is able to properly abstract them from reality, and through that act they can directly know reality. In short, Hume’s empiricism does not allow an individual to map out the temporal world or the eternal world. Aristotle’s empiricism, however, especially in the hands of Aquinas, does allow an individual to map out the temporal and eternal world.

There is a robust and consistent metaphysic and epistemology in Thomism. Aquinas argued that there were first principles of reality (being) and that these first principles could be directly known. These principles of reality are principles of all beings. This entails the laws of identity, contradiction, excluded middle, etc., apply to God as Pure Act and Being, and they apply to all other beings (lowercase). The reason the law of identity is able to apply to God is because it is simply stating a realist principle of being. In short, the empiricism of Aristotle does not function in the way and fashion Wilson claims. God must operate in a way consistent with his nature, not in a way consistent with Hume’s empiricism.

Point 8: Divine Immobility, Verbs, and God Talk

An a priori commitment to the belief that Thomism requires an immobile God collides with the many plain statements of Aquinas, as well as being out of conformity with the steady stream of Thomistic thought on this matter. This has already been discussed above and refuted by Feser.

Moreover, it is recognized that there are three ways to approach God-talk: univocally, equivocally, and analogically. Univocal predication claims that God’s love and man’s love must be the same, or univocal. Equivocal predication claims that God’s love and man’s love must be completely different. Analogical predication claims that God’s love and man’s love must operate unto the mode of being of both God and man. Univocity fails to recognize the Creator-creature distinction and collapses into a form of pantheism. Equivocal God-talk fails to recognize the similarities between the Creator-creature (both have being, we are made in the image of God, etc.) and results in a form of agnosticism or skepticism. Analogical God-talk rightly recognizes the Creator-creature distinction; therefore, it escapes the charge of pantheism. It also recognizes there is some commonality between God and creation, but it does so analogically; hence, it rejects agnosticism and skepticism. Consequently, we can agree that understanding of God does not give us direct and exhaustive knowledge of God, and yet it does give us true and mediated knowledge of God. In this sense, Wilson seems to agree with the Thomists on analogical predication. I’m sure he would qualify it in various ways. Nonetheless, a rose by any other name is still a rose, and a difference without a distinction is not a difference, and when we smell the rose of Wilson’s points (in this article) on verbs, nouns, and God-talk, there is no functional difference or distinction between it and Thomas’s analogical God-talk.

Point 9: Thomism, Creation, and Necessity

Wilson is right when he says that “this actually represents the heart of the trouble, and I am starting to wonder why I put it ninth.” Namely, if Aquinas’s view entails a form of pantheism, that God’s actions and operations are God, then it entails that creation necessarily exists. This would rob God of both the notion of creation ex nihilo and his ability to freely choose to create. This would undermine his omnipotence and demand that God must create of necessity, not by choice.

Unfortunately, Wilson is incorrect, because all of these “ifs” are actually false characterizations of Aquinas. Time does not permit a full refutation of these claims, but remember: Wilson merely offered claims and nothing more. One merely has to consider the fact that God is Pure Act and all creatures are Act/Potency to demonstrate that he was not a pantheist. One can turn to the Summa Theologicae Questions 44-49 to see Aquinas’s discussion of creation ex nihilo. One can turn to Questions 22 and 23 on the Providence and Predestination of God where Aquinas states in clear terms things directly contrary to Wilson’s claims concerning the will of God.

In short, not only is it false to claim Aquinas affirms divine immobility, but it is also false to claim that Aquinas is a pantheist, who believed that God’s omnipotence demands he create.

Point 10: Thomism and Roman Catholicism

No one denies that Aquinas was a Roman Catholic. But, again, it all comes down to how you define Thomism. No one denies that Aquinas affirmed many things that are repulsive to Protestant ears. No one denies there were many things with which we take strong issue, such as Aquinas’s view of the sacraments, which are directly opposed to the clear teachings of Scripture. No consistent Protestant would ever claim to read the Roman Catholic aspects of Aquinas through a Protestant lens. But no consistent Protestant would claim that everything Aquinas teaches is Roman Catholicism. We should recognize this type of argument for what it is; namely, a genetic fallacy. We should not throw out the baby of Aquinas just because some of his writings were wet with the water of Roman Catholicism.

P. S. I predict many might claim, “But no true Reformed theologian would do that!” We should recognize that type of argument for what it is too; namely, a No True Scotsman fallacy.

Point 11: Aquinas’s End of Life Mystical Experience

Wilson states:

Near the end of his life, Thomas Aquinas had a mystical experience that caused him to stop writing. “Everything that I have written seems straw in comparison with what I have seen.” May it not be too much to ask that God give us the grace to see something similar (Eph. 1:18-19), and to come to a similar conclusion.

Update: If Wilson is claiming we should view our works on God as straw in comparison to the greater truth of knowing God, I agree. If Wilson is claiming we should view all of Aquinas’s works as straw, I disagree. It is uncharitable at best to one of the greatest thinkers of all time, and a sarcastic slap to the face of a Christian apologist engaging the biggest issues of his day at worst.

William C. Roach, PhD

You can Douglas Wilson’s original article here:

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