Never Doubt Thomas

The Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant

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Francis J. Beckwith
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , July
     2019.
     213 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781481307246.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

For many Evangelical Protestants, the period between Augustine and Martin Luther is thought of as the dark ages. Francis Beckwith’s book Never Doubt Thomas: The Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant opens the curtains to reveal one of the brightest thinkers in the medieval church, Thomas Aquinas. But this is no theological or philosophical biography. Rather, Beckwith wants to show how this Dominican doctor can provide a basis for unity between Protestants and Catholics on important contemporary issues in religion and public life. Beckwith chooses topics not just for their prominence in recent theological debate, but also for the role they played in his own story of moving from Catholicism to Evangelicalism and back to Catholicism again. He believes Aquinas “can provide real insight and help us to clarify some important issues over which many Christians have been divided since those fateful days in the sixteenth century” (10).

Beckwith is not aiming to convert Protestants; rather, he believes the theological tradition of Aquinas is “a tradition to which non-Catholic Christians have as much claim as their Latin church brethren” (9). Nevertheless, Beckwith frequently finds fault with those Protestants who have engaged the saint’s work (though he is certainly appreciative of the attempt). He repeatedly makes the case, either implicitly or explicitly, that Aquinas’ theology is substantially the same as the current doctrine of the Catholic Church (see the subtitle: The Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant). While this may be the case, Beckwith could have spent more time proving it. (As it is, he directs skeptical or curious readers to 60 pages of endnotes to keep the main text accessible. This is by far the most frustrating feature of the book, and I wish he would have integrated them into the text.) To Beckwith’s credit, this is exactly what happens in the chapter on justification, where he investigates early Christian sources used by popular evangelical thinkers such as Norman Geisler and R.C. Sproul. He shows how they use selective quotations to bolster their arguments. When read in context, however, Beckwith demonstrates a real continuity between these thinkers, Aquinas, and later Catholic thought.

If this type of analysis characterized the book as a whole, it might be more persuasive as an argument that St. Thomas would fit right in with today’s Catholic Church. But of course, this is not quite Beckwith’s goal. He wants to apply Aquinas to today. It is easy to see how Aquinas’ situation in an increasingly pluralistic world with new and competing ideologies is similar to our own, though the differences can also be illuminating. In his discussion of natural law, for instance, Beckwith defends the tradition against those who believe it does not produce results, suggesting this is not the intention. Natural law can help explain the unity and diversity of moral structures on display today, but it “is not advanced as an answer to the concerns of political liberalism” (20).

Moving on to a topic very much of interest in Thomas’ time, Beckwith investigates the issue which recently sparked controversy at Wheaton College in Illinois: Do Muslims, Christians, and Jews worship the same God? This section is dominated by analogies meant to show the difference between the philosophical concepts of sense and reference, not all of which seem quite right. (For instance, is God like Superman/Clark Kent, who is dating two women at once and ostensibly lying to both?) The influence of Aquinas is in the idea of God as perfect being: since there cannot be more than one perfect being by definition, the referent of the term “God” must be one. Beckwith entertains and answers a number of Protestant objections. As this question has received a great deal of attention, I will only note his conclusion about one potential ramification of his view: “Although Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God, they do not share the same faith” (58).

It is the section on intelligent design (ID) where Beckwith is most personal and most enlightening. He notes his interest in ID as a legal topic regarding public school science courses, the difficulties his engagement in this discussion caused him, and his own intellectual movement away from ID. His major contention in this chapter is that the view of God held by ID theorists is far too close to that held by atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Not only is God larger than the gaps ID theorists find in the world, God cannot even be measured because God is not a part of the world. Looking to the classical theism of Aquinas, Beckwith argues that “God wills the entirety of his creation and the events within it—including the free actions of rational creatures, the random, and the law-like—in a single thought from all eternity, and he keeps in existence all things in his creation at every moment they exist” (84).

For such a short book (116 pages, not counting the endnotes), the scope and depth achieved are impressive. Beckwith seriously engages the topics at hand while also drawing the reader in with personal anecdotes and connections to current events. And even more importantly, he does so with care and a genial tone any philosopher or theologian would do well to emulate. There are some weaknesses: Beckwith often equates Aquinas with official Catholic doctrine and the term “Evangelical” with Reformed Protestantism. Additionally, the topics chosen are of such importance to many Protestants that changing minds may require more substantial arguments. And finally, much more could be said about Aquinas and his work in its own right. But for the topics Beckwith engages, he succeeds in showing how the saint offers the possibility for Catholics and Protestants to see the same sky shining into the church and into an often cloudy world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric Anthony is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
September 24, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies and Associate Director of the Graduate Program in Philosophy at Baylor University.

 

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