Before the second century theologian Tertullian uttered his rhetorical question, “what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” the church had already been struggling with how it ought to relate to intellectual disciplines outside of theology. Tertullian’s answer was, apparently, to remain aloof and not allow the apostolic doctrine to be tainted. Other fathers, for instance, Origen, were so enamored with Greek philosophy that it morphed their theology into something decidedly unbiblical at many points. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas tried his hand at bridging this gap and has been perhaps the most influential philosopher in Roman Catholic and even many Protestant intellectual circles ever since. However, he is not without his critics. The central issue of dispute in Aquinas’ approach to philosophy and defense of the faith has to do with human nature and Christian epistemology. To put it simply, can man reason to God autonomously, that is without the need of grace, as Aquinas believed? Or, as the reformed have argued, is autonomous reasoning so thoroughly poisoned against God that it cannot be appealed to in order to support Christian propositions?
The primary concern of Aquinas and the other scholastics was bringing theology into synthesis with other approaches to acquiring knowledge (philosophy, science, etc.). As church historian Roger Olson notes:
“[A] common characteristic of medieval scholasticism was its overwhelming concern with discovering the correct relationship between non-Christian philosophies and divine revelation. At the high point of scholasticism in the thirteenth century, the works of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle were being rediscovered and translated into Latin… As Aristotle’s philosophy was being rediscovered in the Muslim and Christian universities of Europe, scholastic theologians attempted to demonstrate the inner compatibility between the philosopher’s main insights and the truths of Christianity” (Olson, History of Christian Thought, Kindle Edition).
For many Christian thinkers, Plato or Aristotle was considered the pinnacle of thinking apart from God’s special revelation. The desire to synthesize Christian with non-Christian thought and philosophy (what became known as the Medieval Synthesis) led to a near sainting of these two pre-Christian philosophers. This elevation of non-Christian thinking fed into what would become known as natural theology, or an approach to ascertaining knowledge of God purely from experience outside of special revelation or, for some, without the need of the Holy Spirit. If reason and nature are a reflection of God, it seems that they would be an independent attestation to Christian truth, and that the man reflecting carefully about himself and the world around him could come to know God in some sense without direct supernatural help. This view found as its champion the Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas:
“One of Aquinas’s most controversial contributions to Christian theology was his claim of a natural realm of knowledge about God and the human soul that is distinct from any realm of special gracious, supernatural activity of God… Aquinas wanted to show that there is a natural world and a natural knowledge that is not wholly dependent on grace so that even a non-Christian entirely devoid of faith—such as Aristotle—could follow a purely natural path to knowledge of God… He believed and argued that while God’s existence is not self-evident, as Anselm had said, it can be demonstrated by natural reason” (Olson, History of Christian Thought, Kindle Edition).
In contrast to Aquinas and his successors in classical and evidentialist apologetics, presuppositionalists (who are generally Calvinistic) such as Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen have taken a very different approach to natural revelation. While they agree with Aquinas that God reveals Himself in nature, they see it as presumption to “put God in the dock,” as it were. Aquinas seems to argue that there is a neutral vantage point whereupon man may stand and judge the reasonableness of belief in God. For presuppositionalists, there is no such neutral point. God is the only possible foundation for reason, so it is dishonest to tell a godless man to use his own reason to make an assessment about the existence of the Triune God. Such a man is in rebellion and we must not help him in his rebellion.
While this is a fair point to make, does an abandonment of Aquinas’ philosophy also require an abandonment of his apologetic methodology? Greg Bahnsen, for one, would answer yes. His treatment of Paul’s speech on Mars Hill, wherein Paul appeals to pagan philosophers and natural revelation, paradoxically reaches the conclusion that Paul does not use a Thomistic approach, but a presuppositional one.
As a refresher, in this passage (Acts 17:22-32) Paul preaches to a group of Athenians assembled together on a hill. These Athenians, we are told, liked to spend their time in nothing other than hearing some new idea. It is here that we find Paul’s answer to the question of Tertullian– what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? Paul noted an altar he had seen in Athens with the inscription “to an unknown God” and used this as a launching point. He would proclaim to them about the God they did not know. He was, Paul claimed, not far from them. He had ordained their time and place so that they might seek Him out, and even some of their own (pagan) poets had some sense of who He was since they called Him “father.” God was near to them through a general revelation that came to all men. However, according to Bahnsen:
“Rather than trying to construct a natural theology upon the philosophical platform of his opponents—assimilating autonomous thought wherever possible—Paul’s approach was to accentuate the antithesis between himself and the philosophers. He never assumed a neutral stance, knowing that the natural theology of the Athenian philosophers was inherently a natural idolatry… Paul’s appeal was to the inescapable knowledge of God which all men have in virtue of being God’s image and in virtue of His revelation through nature and history. A point of contact could be found even in pagan philosophers due to their inalienable religious nature. Paul indicated that unbelievers are conspicuously guilty for distorting and suppressing the truth of God.” (Bahnsen, Always Ready, Kindle Edition).
As a matter of fact, though Paul does appeal to what they know from experience, he does not affirm their knowledge as if it were autonomous. Instead, he corrects their misunderstandings. As worshipers of idols, they worshiped in ignorance. God made all things and did not need their service as the idols did. It was the one true God who showed Himself in nature and was in fact the source of all creation; it was not nature which might be appealed to in order to reach a conclusion about some god or another. God demanded repentance because Jesus was set to judge the world. Paul made a point of contact, but he never assumed that he and they were on equal footing when it came to reason. As Van Til wrote in his essay “Nature and Scripture,” “there is no thing that does not exist by his creation. All things take their meaning from him. Every witness to him is a ‘prejudiced’ witness. For any fact to be a fact at all, it must be a revelational fact” (Cornelius Van Til, Nature and Scripture, Kindle Edition). For Bahnsen and Van Til, the only proper reasoning is that which presupposes the triune God. And since man is at enmity with God, only the man who has been enlightened by grace can overcome the noetic (intellectual) effects of sin.
Each perspective (Thomistic and presuppositonal) has potential drawbacks. The danger of presuppositionalism is that it is entirely capable of being used to justify an unwarranted assumption while denying evidence and reason. Once a presuppositionalist decides what he thinks a passage in scripture means, he might very well view any alternative perspective as rebellion against God. This is precisely why the young earth creationist group Answers in Genesis endorses presuppositionalism. One might argue that the evidence for their position is weak, so they must fall back on the premise that since scripture is authoritative, and their interpretation of scripture must be the proper one, the fact that outside evidence seems to contradict their position is not a flaw in nature but a reflection of the fallen mind.
Conversely, the Thomist will be tempted to jump onto any non-Christian philosophical bandwagon in the interest of updating Christian thought. This tendency arguably contributed to Christians separating body and spirit (due to the influence of Plato) as well as moving from a view that distinguished church and state to one that made them nearly synonymous.
Where does this leave us? In the interest of truth, Christians need to be open to insights from outside of the church, but also seek to maintain the authority of scripture and a Christ-centered confession. When it comes to apologetic methodology, we cannot treat man as autonomous or make him feel that God will respect whatever decision he reaches so long as he comes by it honestly. However, we must also seek to use whatever methods and arguments are available to us to demonstrate the reasonableness of faith in God and seek to demonstrate the wisdom of the Psalmist who claimed that, “the fool has said in his heart that there is no God” (Psalm 14:1).