Some of the Reformers quote Aquinas approvingly, but their doing so is not abundant or unqualified, and much less does it suggest a praise of his person or a general commendation of his doctrine. The contemporary advocates of studying Thomas sometimes make it sound like the Reformers (and Puritans, et al) were Thomistic to the core and that their writings are brimming with use of his own. Granting that these are learned men worthy of a healthy respect and that I am a commoner, I must confess that I simply don’t see it.
From January 28, 2023 to January 28, 2025 the Roman communion is celebrating a jubilee of Thomas Aquinas to commemorate his birth, death, and canonization. As part of the celebrations the Vatican’s “Apostolic Penitentiary” has granted an indulgence which can be attained “under the usual conditions (sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and prayer for the intentions of the Supreme Pontiff).” The homebound may attain the benefits “if, despising all their sins and with the intention of fulfilling the three usual conditions as soon as possible, they spiritually join in the Jubilee celebrations in front of an image of St Thomas Aquinas, offering to the merciful God their prayers.” Nor is this limited to the living. It can be attained for “the souls of the faithful departed still in purgatory” by those who take “a pilgrimage to a holy place connected with the Order of Friars Preachers, and there devoutly take part in the jubilee ceremonies, or at least devote a suitable time to pious recollection, concluding with the Lord’s Prayer, the symbol of faith and invocations of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of Saint Thomas Aquinas.” (Aquinas was a member of the Order of Preachers, or Dominican Order.)
Pilgrimages, purgatory, sacramental confession, indulgences, invoking saints and Mary, and praying before images of men . . . this episode demonstrates that after half a millennium Rome persists in the errors which sparked the Reformation. “Rome does not change and has not conceded any of her claims” (Herman Bavinck). And one of those things to which Rome appeals to justify her practices is the thought of Thomas Aquinas, hence Bavinck continues:
The Middle Ages remain the ideal to which all Roman Catholics aspire. The restoration of Thomistic philosophy by the encyclical of August 4,1879, seals this aspiration.
Bavinck is speaking here of Pope Leo XIII’s declaration Aeterni Patris, which commended Aquinas’ thought in glowing terms, calling him “the chief and master of all towers” and “the special bulwark and glory of the Catholic faith,” whose teaching is “the true and Catholic doctrine” (quoting Pope Urban V), “golden wisdom,” “angelic wisdom,” “immortal works,” on whose wings reason “can scarcely rise higher,” and such that “those who hold to it are never found swerving from the path of truth.” Leo says that the “ecumenical councils” held Aquinas in such “singular honor” that “one might almost say that Thomas took part and presided” over them, of which his “chief and special glory” was having his Summa laid upon the altar at the Council of Trent, along with scripture and papal declarations, from whence the council could “seek counsel, reason, and inspiration.”
That same spirit has found contemporary expression with “Thomas Joseph White and many others in the Thomistic Ressourcement movement (such as Gilles Emery, Matthew Levering, and Dominic Legge).” This movement uses Aquinas’s thought to direct contemporary doctrinal instruction and ecumenical dialogue. Arguably such an approach is not fully Thomistic itself: Aquinas said that schismatics and heretics ought to be excommunicated and punished by the civil power (“secular arm”) – with death in the case of heretics. That’s a far cry from ecumenical dialogue; and, of course, Rome has historically considered Protestants as falling into both of those categories, albeit somewhat moderating its position in recent decades.
Of greater concern is that this movement has found welcome with some Protestant academics. Notable examples are seen in Credo Magazine’s recent Aquinas issue, and in the controversy which occurred when some Protestants (James White, Owen Strachan) criticized the popularization of Aquinas. A distinction must be made here between using Aquinas’s thought approvingly and celebrating it (or him). A distinction might also be made between using his thought in a careful way that emphasizes it is useful only for some topics and is erroneous at other points, and an approach which in its eagerness fails to sufficiently warn where Aquinas went wrong. Some Protestants have become so enamored with Aquinas that they have attempted to lay claim to him. John Gerstner published an article titled “Aquinas was a Protestant” in Tabletalk in 1994.
I’m not sure that more recent advocates of studying Thomas have gone so far as that, but their writings often savor of celebration and not merely of that discerning use which I mentioned above. Samuel Parkison said Aquinas is “enjoying the blessed hope of the beatific vision,” which is hopefully correct, but hard to maintain with confidence given that Aquinas taught idolatry and what the New Testament says about idolaters (1 Cor. 5:11; 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; Rev. 21:8). I’m confident that the Credo crowd would dispute much of what Thomas thought, but it is hard to escape the feeling that they have so much emphasized what they consider beneficent in Aquinas, and what they consider to be common belief between him and the Reformation, that they have unhelpfully exaggerated his usefulness, praised his person, and neglected or minimized his faults.
This marks a contrast with the Reformers, as near as I can tell. Some of the Reformers quote Aquinas approvingly, but their doing so is not abundant or unqualified, and much less does it suggest a praise of his person or a general commendation of his doctrine. The contemporary advocates of studying Thomas sometimes make it sound like the Reformers (and Puritans, et al) were Thomistic to the core and that their writings are brimming with use of his own. Granting that these are learned men worthy of a healthy respect and that I am a commoner, I must confess that I simply don’t see it.
Stefan Lindholm is more careful in his treatment and readily admits the limits of Zanchi’s agreement with Aquinas, but he still says that Zanchi “was well known for his scholastic style and his frequent use of Thomas.” He neglects to quote him doing so, however, and when I turn to Zanchi’s Absolute Doctrine of Predestination I find him citing Aquinas but twice and saying he was “a man of some genius, and much application: who, though in very many things a laborious trifler, was yet, on some subjects, a clear reasoner and judicious writer” (modernized slightly). That is hardly high praise. Elsewhere I have expressed similar findings regarding John Owen’s use and opinion of Aquinas, and I find similar things in Calvin, whose Institutes don’t brim with Aquinas references. David Sytsma – who is also reasonably balanced and responsible on the larger question of Reformers using Aquinas – admits as much in that same issue of Credo (“John Calvin did not often mention Aquinas”). Even granting that one could adhere to Thomas’ methods or concepts without quoting him abundantly, it is hard to reconcile Credo’s frequent enthusiasm on this point with much of what I find in the actual writings of our forerunners.
Of similar concern is that enthusiasm for Aquinas has led some such Protestants to keep company with members of Rome and to commend their works and offer them a platform. Members of the Dominican Order’s Thomistic Institute have appeared at Credo in a teaching capacity (here and here). Again, Rome’s practices have not changed, and we regard them as tyrannical and as leading people rather away from God than to him in truth. They are “idolatry and a gross subversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” as Parkison put it elsewhere at Credo. That being so, the question might be asked: then why cooperate with such people whom one believes are so disastrously wrong?
And to that we may ask more particularly several other questions. Has bad company ceased to ruin good morals (1 Cor. 15:33)? Are Rome’s corruptions no longer teachings of demons (1 Tim. 4:1-3) that make void the word of God (Matt. 15:6), and do our confessions no longer regard participation in oath-bound orders such as the Dominicans to be a snare (Westminster Confession 22.7; London Baptist Confession 23.5)? Is praying before an image of a man no longer superstition, and are such things as pilgrimages and celebrations and invocations of men no longer works of human wisdom (Col. 2:16-23) that too much exalt men (comp. Acts 10:26), “are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23), and deny the scriptural example of praying directly to God (Matt. 6:9; Jn. 15:16; 16:23)? Is it through Aquinas that we have access to the Father, or is it through Christ that we have access to him in the Spirit (Eph. 2:18)? Is it before his image that we are to pray at all times, or are we to do so in the Spirit (Eph. 6:18)? When we celebrate or follow any man are we no longer “being merely human” (1 Cor. 3:4; comp. v. 7)? And when we celebrate an idolater like Aquinas are we obeying the command “not to associate with such people” (1 Cor. 5:11)? Scripture is very plain on these points, but some otherwise learned and useful men have stumbled into witness-tarnishing inconsistency in this matter; and well might we fear for some of them, lest their zeal for learning might lead them away from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ alone (2 Cor. 11:3; comp. Eph. 4:14; Col. 2:8; 2 Tim. 3:7). “Pray for all people,” dear reader, not least for our academics, that they abide in the truth viz. all people and ideas (1 Tim. 2:1; Jas. 5:16).
Tom Hervey is a member of Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church, Five Forks (Simpsonville), SC. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not of necessity reflect those of his church or its leadership or other members. He welcomes comments at the email address provided with his name. He is also author of Reflections on the Word: Essays in Protestant Scriptural Contemplation.