Learning How To Think

In a comment to my article, The Heart Has Its Reasons, “Newheart” at Free Republic wrote that the trend I first noticed in the 60s of society moving away from reason and focusing on pleasure “…was the widespread coming to fruition of trends in thought that began centuries before.  Francis Schaeffer’s book, Escape from Reason, gives a very good outline of that historical progression.”  I was unable to contact this person, to thank him for the comment, but I did pick up a copy of Escape from Reason, which does in fact paint a very good picture, tracing the decline of reason in society at large.

I also discovered that though many consider Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) to be the finest Christian thinker of our time, just as many have little respect for him.  He is not appreciated by Catholics who perceive him as having mischaracterized the teachings of Thomas Aquinas.  So I also picked up a copy of Thomas Aquinas On Faith And Reason, edited, with introductions, by Stephen F. Brown, to acquaint myself with the theology of Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas is considered the major philosopher/theologian of the Roman Catholic church.  The study of his work is still considered vital to those training for the priesthood.  Living in the latter part of the Middle Ages (1225-1274), his mode of thought and study of the Scriptures was greatly influenced by Greek thought, particularly Aristotelian logic.  Because of this, his scholarly works were shaped by the structure of his reasoning, which in turn influenced Western thought for centuries to come.

Francis Schaeffer, in his book Escape from Reason, wrote that Thomas Aquinas opened the way for the discussion of a separation between the heavenly aspects of faith and the natural aspects of the created world.  Using art to illustrate his point, he wrote:

Up to this time, man’s thought-forms had been Byzantine.  The heavenly things were all-important and were so holy that they were not pictured realistically.  For instance, Mary and Christ were never portrayed realistically.  Only symbols were portrayed… So prior to Thomas Aquinas there was an overwhelming emphasis on the heavenly things, very far off and very holy, pictured only as symbols, with little interest in nature itself.  With the coming of Aquinas we have the real birth of the humanistic Renaissance. (p. 14).

It is important to remember that the Gutenberg press didn’t arrive on the scene until around 1440.  So during the life-time of Thomas Aquinas, books were all hand-written, and therefore rare and expensive.  Only the clergy actually had Bibles to read, and most of them were written in Latin.  So church members were totally dependent upon what the priests told them, as to what Scripture taught.  This served to cement the authority of the church hierarchy and stave off free inquiry into the doctrines of the church.

When Thomas Aquinas was a student, two trends were impacting the education of priests: universities were beginning to supersede the traditional schools operated in monasteries, palaces and cathedrals, and the influence of Aristotle began to place an emphasis on reason, separate from faith.  As a result of this growing focus on reason, Aquinas approached theology from both faith and reason, considering them both beneficial.  But he made a distinct differentiation between the two.  Prior to Aquinas, reason had never had equal standing with faith.  After Aquinas, it did.

During Aquinas’s life, the term “science” did not have the same meaning as it does today.  Aquinas and his contemporaries used the term “science” to mean any field of knowledge that could be studied by a formal system or discipline.  Because of this, he called both philosophy and theology “sciences”, which can be confusing for us today.  Even though the beginnings of modern science were steeped in the religious values of service to God and Man, the “sciences” began to emerge as something distinct from faith and religion.  On page 41, Schaeffer quotes Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in Novum Organum Scientiarium: “Man by the Fall fell at the same time from his state of innocence and from his dominion over nature.  Both of these losses, however, can even in this life be in some part repaired; the former by religion and faith, the latter by the arts and sciences.”

What made Aquinas argue so adamantly and effectively that theology is a science was his focus on logical argumentation and logical proofs as means of instruction.  Aquinas’s elevation of reason led Francis Schaeffer to write, “In Aquinas’s view, the will of man was fallen, but the intellect was not.” (p. 16).  Schaeffer was saying Aquinas believed that reason, or human intellect, was not part of the Fall, making us autonomous in matters of reason.

Considering the intellect to have autonomy allowed Aquinas to be a proponent of natural theology, which is based on reason and experience.  He did not see this as conflicting with revealed theology, based on Scripture.  He saw the two approaches as complementary, not contradictory.  But Schaeffer held that the two created a dichotomy in thought that became increasingly destructive, as Western Civilization passed through the Renaissance and beyond, producing new philosophies to refute Aquinas.  I don’t think Schaeffer was blaming Aquinas for all that.  He was simply noting that Aquinas opened the topic that led us off course.  Many have strongly contested that point, particularly Catholics.

I have not studied the theology of Aquinas thoroughly enough to defend Schaeffer’s claim, however, I do agree with his statement on p. 27, “The Reformation accepted the Biblical picture of a total Fall.  The whole man had been made by God, but now the whole man is fallen, including his intellect and will.”  Regardless of how Thomas Aquinas viewed reason vis-a-vis the Fall of Man, I do agree that his emphasis on human reason did lead to the humanist concept of man’s reason having autonomy in the natural world.  It did feed into the dichotomy of the secular and the divine.

In my opinion, the Reformation and the availability of Bibles to common people (in their own language) was an influence that moderated that trend.  Popular familiarity with Scripture created a renewed emphasis on the authority of Scripture, which everyone could examine, just as the Bereans had in Acts 17:11.  It also tended to make religion less formalized (at least for Protestants) and more personalized, as direct and immediate access to Scripture nourished the individual’s own relationship with the living God.  Such an individual, personally walking with the LORD, was less apt to assume intellectual autonomy because that would be rebelling against the lordship of Christ, Christ being the head of the church.

Almost eight centuries have passed since Aquinas impacted Christianity.  And today, people think much differently than they did back in his day.  Our philosophies are different.  Our expectations are different.  Our assumptions are different, and our presuppositions are different.  Today, we seem to have compartmentalized the dichotomy of the divine and the secular.  We live in a society that either ignores or belittles the things of God, rather than acknowledges and respects them.  For many Christians, there is nothing that marks them as different from non-Christians, except for the act of attending church.  And even that difference is watered down by the modern church’s attempts at being “relevant”, which has the effect of blending in with popular, secular interests and attitudes.

As a Christian, I first came across this kind of compartmentalized thinking after beginning to attend church.  My young faith had told me that everything in my life was under Christ’s authority.  I had a personal relationship with God.  I was always in his presence.  I didn’t consider myself “autonomous”.  Then one day I was talking to a man I considered a mature believer, and he said something like, “OK, let’s get spiritual for a moment.”  On one level, it was simply a figure of speech.  But on another level, I wondered why a Christian would have to “get spiritual”.  The implication was that he had a switch he turned on and off, as occasion would dictate.  This kind of compartmentalization is what Schaeffer meant by “autonomy”, which sustains a lifestyle difficult to differentiate from that of non-believers.

There is a reason people think as they do.  Every culture and era has its own way of thinking.  Even each generation has its own way of thinking.  And there’s a reason Christians think the way they do.  Thinking that you’re going to “get spiritual” with other believers when you go to church, isn’t the kind of thinking taught in the Bible.  It comes from the underpinnings of humanist thinking which nurtures a sense of autonomy.

When faith is subject to the proof of human reason, humans assume an autonomy separate from God.  We see a lot of that kind of thinking these days.  It wasn’t reading Francis Schaeffer or Thomas Aquinas that made me aware of this; it was reading How The Church Lost The Way by Steve Maltz.  The premise of his book is that much of the understanding of Scripture was lost as Hebrew was translated into Latin and Greek and the essential Jewish thinking of the Bible was replaced with Greek thought patterns.

This may not seem to be significant to the uninformed, but I urge Christians to read what Mr. Maltz has to say on this issue.  We must remember that Jesus was a Jew.  He fulfilled Jewish prophesy and the Jewish Torah.  The first Christians were Jews.  The early church was primarily Jewish.  Most of the writers of the New testament were Jews.  And Paul was a Rabbi who had been a member of the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus.  In his book, Steve Maltz very clearly demonstrates that Paul never stopped being a practicing Jew.  But equally, he never said that becoming a Christian necessitated becoming a Jew.  The New Testament is clear on this.

The rejection of the “Jewishness” of Scripture by the Roman Catholic Church resulted in the loss of some very basic understandings.  First of all, in the Jewish culture of New Testament times, every boy, whether rich or poor, was taught the Hebrew Scriptures.  Familiarity with the Bible was commonplace.  When the rabbis (including Jesus) referred to a passage of Scripture as they were preaching or teaching, they only needed to quote the beginning of the passage because everyone would know the passage he was referring to.  This practice is evident in many of Paul’s writings and points to the need of examining the entire passages alluded to for proper understanding, not just to the brief portions he referenced.  Also, many examples of the traditional rabbinical methods of thought and teaching are evident in the recorded words of Jesus and in the style of Paul’s writing.

In order to best understand the things Jesus said in the New Testament, the reader must realize that Jesus was a Jew who spoke to Jews in the context of Jewish culture and traditions.  When the essential “Jewishness” of the New Testament is explained, meanings become crystal clear.  More than anything, in the Bible a Jew’s identity is anything but autonomous.  Every person in Israel saw himself in context to his family.  Family was the central focus.  And families weren’t isolated from one another.  Each family was a part of a clan.  Each clan was a part of a tribe.  Each tribe was a part of the nation of Israel, chosen by God to be his own people.

Because Israel had been Jacob, whose twelve sons became the twelve tribes, to this day, Jews still retain the sense that all Jews are “family”.  When Jesus referred to “my Father”, that was powerfully significant to the crowding listeners.  When John wrote, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…” (John 1:12), those words carried a special significance to the Jews.  If their family identity in this life was so meaningful, how much more would it mean to be in the family of God?  (That last sentence is an example of one form of rabbinical rhetoric.)

The bottom line is that Jews (Jewish thinking) considered faith in God to be homogenous and congruous to their whole identity.  A Jewish understanding of Scripture tended to be holistic, and not as prone to consider the natural world differently from how they thought about the divine.  Adopting that ancient Jewish perspective when we study Scripture will go a long way to preserve the wholeness of our faith.  The church can still recover from the dichotomy of thought that has allowed us to assume the autonomy of reason and compartmentalize our faith.  We just have to learn how to think.

About retiredday

I am Michael D. Day, a regular, everyday guy -- retired. I stand for God-given freedom, which means I think for myself. I believe in being civil, because the Bible teaches that we should love our enemies. But I also believe in saying it how I see it, and explaining just why I see it that way, sort of like 2 Timothy 4:2.
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