Arvin Vos’ Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought butchers the sacred cow of contemporary Protestant philosophy, the vilification of Thomas Aquinas. Vos, a Reformed Protestant, demonstrates that traditional Protestant interpretation of Aquinas flawed. Moreover, he argues that in some cases Aquinas’ thought is superior to Calvin’s and the Reformed tradition’s; he urges Protestants to re-appropriate their Thomistic heritage.
Vos’ catalogue of Protestant errors is embarrassingly thorough. Protestants have wrongly opposed Calvin to Aquinas on the nature of faith. Though their language is quite different, their substance is similar. Vos argues against Wolterstorff that in matters of faith, Aquinas was a fideist (in Wolterstorff’s somewhat unusual categorization) rather than an evidentialist. Regarding the Five Ways, Vos contends that they are not philosophical prerequisites to belief. Their actual function is much more interesting, and I urge readers to concentrate on this exposition, which I found to be the highlight of the book. Aquinas does not, as many Protestants suggest, construct a two-story view of knowledge in which faith is superadded to reason; rather, he argues that philosophical demonstration is unnecessary (though not unhelpful) where there is faith. Finally, Aquinas does not radically distinguish nature from grace or make grace an accessory to nature. A careful consideration of Aquinas’ definition of nature dispels that notion.
At first, Vos’ thesis may seem too revisionist, too innovative to be credible. After all, is it really likely that such a wide spectrum of Protestant thinkers — Carl Henry, Rienhold Neibuhr, Cornelius Van Til, Francis Schaeffer, Herman Dooyeweerd — have all misinterpreted Aquinas? Vos points out that there are very few Protestant scholars with firsthand proficiency in Aquinas, with the result that mistakes in secondary sources are widely disseminated. Even more crucially, Vos’ interpretation of Aquinas is not particularly original. He draws heavily from 20th century Catholic scholars, such as Henri de Lubac, Etienne Gilson, Marie-Dominique Chenu, G. de Broglie, and others. The Thomism of “pure nature” and rationalism that Protestants rightly refute, say these authors, stems not so much from Thomas as from Thomistsof the 16th- and 17th centuries, who were seeking to bolster Catholicism against Protestantism and Cartesianism. As these scholars have called attention to misinterpretations of Aquinas within their own tradition, Vos does likewise for Protestants.
The claim that Protestantism has widely misinterpreted Thomas, but not necessarily Thomism, is itself significant enough to make Vos’s work worth reading. The sharpest bite is not this point, however, but Vos’ assertion that Aquinas’ definition of faith and description of the natural powers of man is superior to Calvin’s. Reformed readers may not swallow this easily, but they cannot ignore Vos’ argument. Besides, anyone who can sludge through Van Til or Dooyeweerd should have no problem handling this lucid, 174-page treatment.