My Thoughts on Aquinas Get Critiqued

Recently Adam Tucker of Southern Evangelical Seminary did me the honor of engaging my thoughts on Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law Theory. I thank him for that, as well as for quoting the late Greg Bahnsen in my defense. That's almost the nicest thing anybody's ever done for me.

Because Tucker's article was unfortunately published, I feel some obligation to reply.

At the outset he tackles the "charge" that "there are many interpretations of Aquinas's teachings...and that nearly 1,000 years of thinking about these issues has not settled the matter." Tucker then imagines that my point "is supposed to call into question any particular view of Thomism because, well, there are just so many interpretations of Aquinas." 

Well, no. That isn't the point at all. The point is straightforward and twofold: it signals that my criticisms of Thomism may or may not apply to all versions of it. More importantly, I was speaking at a panel discussion in which one of my interlocutors presented his revisionist version of Thomism (a far more "presuppositional" version, I might add) as "The Classical Natural Law Tradition," and then blithely dismissed any worries about the nature/grace distinction, noetic effects of sin, and so forth, as "embarrassingly misinformed." Since that was designed to "poison the well" of my forthcoming critique, I thought I'd point out that there are plenty of Thomists who would chafe at his revisionist dogmatism. This is all very clear from my remarks. It had nothing whatsoever to do with some kind of shrug-of-the-shoulders relativism about Thomistic interpretation.

Tucker agrees that talking about "intrinsic teleology" or "proper ends" is as unpopular as quoting John 3:16 in our current cultural context because "[o]ur culture has adopted bad philosophical views that have led to our current state of moral relativism and confusion." Then follows this jarring sentence: "Ignoring these erroneous views, however, and jumping straight to God does not help matters."

I don't know anyone who wants to "ignore" these erroneous views, and I'm fairly unsure what "jumping straight to God" means.

The next sentence compounds my confusion: "Most of the time, going straight to God on moral issues improperly grounds the very morality being discussed."

I'm not sure why the focus is suddenly moral issues, since we were just talking about metaphysics and epistemology. Be that as it may, Tucker's sentence literally means that morality is only properly grounded in something other than God. That's so weird a position for a Christian apologist that I assume he must mean something else.

The rest of the paragraph does little to clarify:

"Even if the person with whom we are discussing these matters accepts our appeal to God, he would then be bringing his erroneous views of reality to bear on Christianity. This is precisely what has happened for the last several hundred years, and the current intellectual state of the church is deplorable. If one rejects the ability to know basic things about sensible reality (e.g., the good of an eye is to see well), he has removed any rationally compelling reason for believing in God as well. Thus, the culture (and often times the church) concludes that one must 'presuppose' (i.e., assume) the existence of God, resort to blind faith, or find rest in his own skepticism. I am convinced the presuppositionalist has adopted the fundamental tenants [sic] of the bad philosophy he claims to be combating."

The first half of this paragraph is inscrutable to me (I've never heard the Enlightement described as [precisely!?] a period where people accepted an appeal to God), but his "thus" clarifies a few things. Tucker seems to think that "presuppositionalism" somehow doesn't believe in the ability to know basic things about sensible reality, and it is that kind of skepticism that leads to an embrace of blind fideism. He later claims that I hold the "assumption that man does not directly know sensible reality." And again: "While implicitly denying our ability to know things in themselves, Mattson...."

Here is something that might prove helpful for the reader and, more importantly, for Mr. Tucker: the entire raison d'etre of a presuppositional apologetic is to account for our obvious ability to know things, anything at all, basic or not, about sensible reality.

I honestly wish it gets better, but it doesn't. Tucker writes: "In fact, considering the numerous miracles, appeals to nature, eyewitness testimony, and personal physical appearances, we seem to see some type of empiricism (knowing sensible things) assumed in the pages of Scripture." There is nothing remotely controversial here, and I know of nobody who doesn't believe there is "some type of empiricism" assumed in Scripture. This is just very strange.

Tucker even knows that I believe in our ability to know things! But he thinks this is somehow a grudging admission: "When it comes down to it, Mattson admits that we can actually know things." Like this is an admission against interest, or I don't want it to be true, or something?

He omits my immediately following sentences, which make clear what it is we are even talking about (the entire nature/grace scheme): "I think it makes a difference whether we view this general 'reasonableness' as simply the natural state of affairs (a 'natural law,' perhaps?) or whether we view it as grace. If it is merely the natural order, we can presume upon it--indeed, so much so that we can use it, as Natual Law Theory does, to construct a general, universal epistemology under which to do business with non-believers. But one does not presume upon grace. And grace is what I think it is." This was, of course, the entire point of this section of my remarks, but Tucker seems uninterested in or at least doesn't grasp the import of the epistemic question raised here.

Suffice it to say, I have never "implied" anywhere, at any time in my life (much less in the remarks under discussion), a belief or assumption that human beings do not know things about the sensible world. None of my intellectual mentors, whether Bavinck, Van Til, Bahnsen, or Frame have ever said or implied such a thing. The entire point is one hundred-eighty degrees the opposite. The question has never been whether knowledge is possible; but, rather, how it is possible or justifiable without Christian presuppositions.

I can only suspect that Mr. Tucker's superficial foray into the world of presuppositional apologetics is by way of some unfortunate caricature learned from a very unreliable and/or grossly unsympathetic secondhand source. He certainly did not learn from Greg Bahnsen that human beings do not know things about the sensible world. He might have learned that unbelievers cannot account for or justify their knowledge on non-Christian bases, but that's quite a different claim. One that ought to be taken seriously. Sadly there's certainly no shortage of caricatures, and capable people have answered things like the "fideism" charge again and again and again.

At any rate, Tucker thinks our primary disagreement arises from whether God is what man "foremost knows." On this, I confess he's probably right. With Aquinas, he denies it. And, along with Aquinas, he simply does not even begin to do justice to Paul's seminal discussion in Romans 1:18-32. Paul says no less than five times that human beings know God, primally and inescapably: "Knowledge of God is plain to them;" "God made it plain to them;" "has been clearly seen;" "being understood;" "Although they knew God..." This is not a mere capacity for knowledge; it is actual knowledge.

It may now seem strange that I am emphasizing that human beings primally, naturally, and inescapably know the God they reject, because Tucker then writes: "Mattson lists several Scripture passages to support his view that man cannot naturally know things about God."

Oh dear. Has he forgotten in the space of mere sentences that I am supposed to be someone who thinks, contra Aquinas, that God is what man "foremost knows"? I just don't know what to say, other than to encourage him to learn enough to avoid representing opponents as saying the exact opposite of what they believe. 

Nothing in Mr. Tucker's response leads me to believe he has a firm grasp on that to which he is responding. The empirical evidence (!) points elsewhere.

One last thing. In his conclusion, he asks: "Why do humans exist with the natures they have?"

It's a great question, and I wonder if we can answer it on rational principles without that "jumping straight to God" thing.

Alas, he writes: "The only answer, I am convinced, is because God has created us as a natural kind with our specific human nature."

Well, I'm happy to report that the actual panel discussion was more fruitful and fun.

Brian Mattson