A Response to Dr. Scott Oliphint’s ReformCon 2016 Talk

posted by cacpro

By Dr. J. Thomas Bridges, 

I regret that I must break from my summer research to respond to Dr. Oliphint’s recent talk at the ReformCon 2016 conference. I am, however, compelled by the compilation of errors and allegations expressly directed at SES for its Thomistic philosophy and overall non-Reformed, Evangelical theology.  In the beginning of the talk, Oliphint prefaces his points by saying, “God is more glorified when truth is clarified.” My colleagues tell me that Dr. Oliphint is a Christian brother who exudes integrity. Consequently, I have to assume Dr. Oliphint has not intentionally misrepresented SES’s views, but he simply does not understand them. Allow me to clarify.

A Problem with Sources 

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Oliphint chastises SES’s Evangelical Thomism, yet never quotes Aquinas and only once quotes Dr. Norman Geisler. He draws heavily and uncritically from a book edited by a former SES student and instructor, Doug Beaumont. In this book Beaumont has compiled a handful of testimonies of former SES students, including himself, who have all converted to Roman Catholicism.  I have responded to the history of these conversions in my review of the book here, which has been available for several months but to which Dr. Oliphint does not refer.



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In his criticism of Aquinas, Oliphint begins with the fact that Aquinas denies that there is
what he calls a “real relation” between God and creatures. Oliphint then skips over an explanation of what this position entails because the audience “wouldn’t be interested” and moves directly to a quotation from Jeffery Brower, a Thomistic philosopher, who calls the position “awkward.” He then moves to a discussion of Paul Helm’s unusual and seemingly unorthodox view of the Incarnation. Oliphint’s conclusion is “When you begin to think that what you believe has to fit into the way that your mind, my mind, all minds typically think, when you begin to think that way, then reason, which is always used in theology, the point is here not no reason but reason instead of being the instrument of theology becomes the foundation even the source of what we are allowed to believe  . . .  meaning what my mind can’t grasp, can’t be true. This is why Arminian theology exists.”

Oliphint tells us that Paul Helm is both Reformed and Thomistic, but he is skeptical that Helm has faithfully communicated Calvin’s thought. Oliphint never stops to question, however, whether or not Helm or Brower before him have given us something that faithfully communicates Aquinas’ thought. It is obvious that Oliphint is aware of Calvin’s thoughts and demonstrably unaware of Aquinas’. Let me briefly explain what Aquinas means when he says God is not ‘really related’ to creatures.

Aquinas takes many of his philosophical clues from Aristotle. Those familiar will know that Aristotle thinks of things as falling into ten categories, one substantial and nine accidental categories. One of these latter is the category of “relation.” In this category two things are really related if there is one subject, one term and a real relation between them. These relations are things like “the father of,” or “to the left of.” Things may be really related or merely related by reason. Things that are not really related, for Aquinas, are things where one of the two relata is not “metaphysically on par” so to speak. He writes,

“Since creatures come forth from God in diversity of nature, God is beyond the whole world of creatures, nor is being related to them part of his nature. For he does not make creatures because his nature compels him to do so, but by mind and will, as we have said already. That is why in God there is no real relation to creatures. Yet there is in creatures a real relation to him, because they are subordinate to, and in their very nature dependent on him.”

~Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Q. 28, a. 1, Responsio 3.

Aquinas’ point, then, is that creatures do not come from God by, as it were, natural necessity, but by free will. Other examples of relations that are not ‘real relations’ are my reflection in a mirror’s relation to me and the human intellect’s relation to a thing informing it. The reason these are not “real relations” for Aquinas, is because, for example, when the reflected image disappears, I carry on just fine. So the reason God is not “really related” to creatures is a metaphysical claim [in the category “relation”] that our existence is totally dependent on God and God’s existence is totally independent of us. Aquinas, who argues in his First Way that all of the cosmos is sustained every moment by God’s causal upholding, could never be understood as claiming that God has no [causal] relation with his creation.

Oliphint glosses over this very reasonable and orthodox explanation of God’s relation with his creatures (albeit in Aristotelian terms and with medieval theological expression), and then he uses these misrepresentations of Aquinas to caricature Aquinas’ view of human reason. Oliphint summarizes it as “what I can’t understand isn’t true.” Oliphint has inexplicably translated Aquinas into the world of early modern Enlightenment rationalism and attributed to him its ideas. Aquinas’ thoughts, however, defy such distortion. He writes,

“Now, perhaps some will think that men should not be asked to believe what the reason is not adequate to investigate, since the divine Wisdom provides in the case of each thing according to its nature. We must therefore prove that it is necessary for man to receive from God as objects of belief even those truths that are above human reason. . . .[Men] are ordained by the divine Providence towards a higher good than human fragility can experience in the present life. That is why it was necessary for the human mind to be called to something higher than the human reason here and now can reach, so that it would thus learn to desire something and with zeal tend toward something that surpasses the whole state of the present life. This belongs especially to the Christian religion, which in a unique way promises spiritual and eternal goods. And so there are many things proposed to men in it [Christianity] that transcend human sense.”

~Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book I, Chapter V, 1-2 [emphasis mine].

Far from being painted with the brush of Enlightenment rationalism, wherein every acceptable truth must pass before the bar of human reason, Aquinas takes the opposite tack and argues that the Christian religion demands that we receive as objects of belief things that surpass “human fragility” and “transcend human sense.”

Thomism and Molinism

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Oliphint collapses Thomism and Molinism regarding questions of predestination, sovereignty, and free will. He then quotes Jonathan Kvanvig’s appeal to philosophical Arminianism (representative of neither Aquinas nor SES). Does Aquinas hold that God looks at all possible counterfactuals and then chooses to instantiate one of them? It is not obvious that this is a proper interpretation of Aquinas, and it is more typical to see Thomism and Molinism at odds. Aquinas notes,

“Since God has virtually practical knowledge of those thing which He could make, even though He never makes them or never will make them, there must be ideas of those things which are not, have not been, nor will be. But these ideas will not be the same as those of things which are, have been, or will be, because the divine will determines to produce things that are, have been and will be, but not to produce those which neither are, have been, nor will be. The latter, therefore, have, in a certain sense, indeterminate ideas.”

~Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate, Q. 3, a. 6, Responsio.

Aquinas’ focus, then, is that God has the power to create more things than He in fact does create. Those things that He could but does not create have some kind of indeterminate idea in the divine mind. The determinate ideas are those things that God has willed to bring into existence. Aquinas sees divine ideas primarily as exemplar causes or archetypes in God’s mind by which He creates all that He does.

He also says,

“Since the vision of divine knowledge is measured by eternity, which is all simultaneous and yet includes the whole of time without being absent from any part of it, it follows that God sees whatever happens in time, not as future, but as present….God infallibly knows all the contingents, whether they are present, past, or future to us; for they are not future to Him but He knows that they are when they are; and the fact of His knowing them does not prevent them from happening contingently.”

~Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate, Q. 2, a. 12, Responsio.

Both of these points taken together mean that for Aquinas’ it is not so much that God looks at some possible future and chooses it over other possible futures based on creaturely choices. God’s eternal will by which He brings all things into being is simultaneous with all times (though He wills not only that something is but also when it is from all of eternity). His willing things from all eternity is simultaneous with his knowledge of all time by divine vision. This means one cannot, without strong argument, attribute a Molinistic view to Aquinas.

On Mystery  

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Oliphint quotes Herman Bavinck, “Mystery is the lifeblood of theology,” and continues to contrast Bavinck with the spurious view of rationalism attributed to Aquinas above. It is not, however, that Aquinas disregards mystery; it is that he balances those Christian doctrines that are, in principle, rationally demonstrable with those Christian doctrines that must be accepted solely on faith because they are mysterious (e.g., the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Last things). Philosopher Alfred Freddoso of the University of Notre Dame gives these definitions that reflect Aquinas’ thinking:

  • Preambles of the faith: Propositions, revealed by God, that human reason could in principle come to knowledge of without the aid of revelation
  • Mysteries of the faith: Propositions, revealed by God, that human reason could not even in principle come to knowledge of without the aid of revelation. [1]

There are Christian beliefs that one must simply receive from God’s revelation because they transcend “human fragility,” but not all Christian beliefs are of this type.

Oliphint’s attitude is not uncommon in Reformed thinking. Take, for example, what R. C. Sproul writes concerning mystery and some foundational aspects of Calvinistic thought. Sproul, writing on the difference between contradiction, paradox, and mystery, explains, “The term mystery refers to that which is true but which we do not understand.”[2] Sproul presents two fundamental aspects of Calvinist thinking that are mysterious: (1) the Fall of Lucifer and Adam, and (2) why God saves some and not others. He writes,

“Herein lies the problem. Before a person can commit an act of sin he must first have a desire to perform that act. The Bible tells us that evil actions flow from evil desires. . . . But Adam and Eve were not created fallen. They had no sin nature. They were good creatures with a free will. Yet they chose to sin. Why? I don’t know. Nor have I found anyone yet who does know.” [3]

“The question remains. Why does God only save some? If we grant that God can save men by violating their wills, why then does he not violate everybody’s will and bring them all to salvation? . . . The only answer I can give to this question is that I don’t know. I have no idea why God saves some but not all. I don’t doubt for a moment that God has the power to save all, but I know that he does not choose to save all. I don’t know why.” [4]

It is unclear as to whether these doctrines are genuine mysteries or matters of simple ignorance. After all, there is a difference between that which is unknowable and that which is simply unknown. We have seen from the above that Aquinas respects those doctrines that are true mysteries (e.g., the Trinity and Incarnation), but Sproul deploys this term in places where it seems to hide simple ignorance. The truth is, Adam and Eve’s choice to sin (and Lucifer’s before them) is only mysterious given what Sproul calls “Edwards’s Law of Choice: The will always chooses according to its strongest inclination at the moment.”[5] It is when Jonathan Edwards’s view of free choice is combined with these theological truths that mystery ensues. Perhaps one should re-evaluate the philosophical commitment to Edwards’s view of free choice (or Augustine’s view of the positions of the will), in order to see if the mystery can be resolved. But this sort of rejection is usually not a live option for those constrained by their tradition, and so the only remaining option is an appeal to mystery.

At SES some of us think a Thomistic (not Arminian) view of free choice, the interactions of the intellect and will in practical reasoning, and the number of positions in the will, give us the nuanced philosophical categories to deal with these truths of Scripture without a preemptive appeal to mystery. An extremely brief statement of the matter might be as follows: free choice is not a matter of choosing according to the strongest momentary  desire, but is, as Eleonore Stump calls it, a “systems-level” feature that emerges from the interactions of the intellect and will. The intellect judges things as “good” under different descriptions (e.g., moral good, pleasurable good, or useful good), and when the intellect elevates one of the lower goods above the highest good (moral good), sin ensues. Lucifer chooses to replace God rather than submit to God, Eve chooses the pleasure of the apple and the potential for a new knowledge rather than follow God’s decree, Adam chooses to follow his wife’s lead rather than God’s decree; hence, the first sin. Technically none of their choices is “choosing an evil”; rather they are choosing a lower good at the expense of a higher one. So all of creation is good, their choices were for a good, and there is freely willed sin.[6]

By the time he reaches the half-way point of his talk, Oliphint has already made several serious and fundamental errors about the content of Thomistic philosophy. These could easily have been avoided had Oliphint followed the simple scholarly practice of referring to primary source material.

On Self-Authentication and Christian Apologetics

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One major point that Oliphint makes in his talk is one’s attitude toward understanding the Bible as the Word of God. The question arises over whether or not the Bible is “self-authenticating.” He quotes SES co-founder, Dr. Norman Geisler, as saying,

“Presuppositionalists claim that the Word of God is self-authenticating. It needs no proof. It is the basis for all other conclusions but it has no basis beyond itself. But what they fail to see is that while all of this is true of the Word of God, nonetheless, it is not thereby true of the Bible. For there must be some evidence or good reasons for believing that the Bible is the Word of God, as opposed to contrary views.”

Geisler argues that there are many religions (e.g., Islam) that believe they have a “Word of God.” How can we adjudicate which religion’s holy text is really divinely inspired? That is the import of the quotation. Oliphint asks the preemptive question: ‘Does your position reduce to [saying] the Bible is the Word of God because the Bible is the Word of God?’ No, because the Westminster Confession of Faith states,

We may be moved in and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God. . . .

If a person were to come to Oliphint and ask, “Why do you believe the Bible is the Word of God?” he would offer them the above from the Westminster confession and also “I didn’t believe the Bible either, but I opened it and read it and the power of God was in it. . . . Look what it says, has anyone ever thought of a religion remotely close to what Christianity is? . . . Only God could think of this.”

Here I want to pause and accept some of Oliphint’s point. His point is that a non-believer cannot appreciate the truths of the Christian faith without the Holy Spirit. Agreed, it is only when the Holy Spirit brings a person into fellowship with God the Father through the sacrifice of the Son that the fullness of the Bible’s truths is open for exploration. We can, however, give arguments to non-believers that touch on the preambles of the Christian faith such as the existence of and some of the attributes of God (e.g., simplicity, immutability), as well as the divine origin of the Bible. These are open to the judgments of reason. SES recognizes the limitations of the apologetics task. It is not intended to convert people to a purely intellectualistic philosophical theism. Even if this is possible, it is not salvific. Giving arguments for the preambles of the faith is intended to remove intellectual obstacles that stand in the way of the Holy Spirit’s work done in men’s hearts.

Having agreed with Oliphint to some extent, I want to reveal a potential weakness in his position. Geisler’s point above was that we need to give arguments that the Christian Bible is the Word of God, contrary to other claimants. In his systematic theology, Geisler points to evidences such as OT and NT historicity, archaeology, supernatural predictions of future events, miracles done by the prophets and apostles, the continuity of the message across 1500 years, 3 languages, and 40 authors, and recent corroborating scientific discoveries. These do not necessitate that the Bible is God’s Word, but they are external evidences that can support the claim as being reasonable/rational.

Oliphint, via the Westminster Confession, points to the “majesty of style” or the “perfection” of the text. The reason these claims are weaker in setting the Bible apart as the true Word of God is that they are similar to the claims that Muslims make about the Quran.

For example, a website asks the question “Can we Prove [the] Quran is From God?” and goes on to answer:

“Muslims have something that offers the clearest proof of all – the Holy Quran. There is no other book like it anywhere on earth. It is absolutely perfect in the Arabic language. It has no mistakes in grammar, meaning, or context. . . . Surprisingly enough, the Quran itself provides us with the test of authenticity and offers challenges against itself to prove its veracity.”[7]

He then goes on to challenge unbelievers to find contradictions in the text or to produce a text like it. This sounds close to what Oliphint advocates and therefore gives the Christian weaker ground for advocating the Bible over the Quran as the authentic Word of God.

The Weight of Testimonials in Academic Debate

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Oliphint is disturbed that this book makes claims (unsubstantiated) that up to two dozen SES students over the past decade have left Evangelicalism for Roman Catholicism. What weight does such a compilation of testimonials have in academic debate? I would suggest very little. In the book that Oliphint references, the authors themselves, at the beginning and at the end, say that these conversions are based on much more than a bare intellectual journey. Further, what about the phenomenon of individuals leaving Reformed theological contexts and converting to Catholicism? See here or here. Or what about the mass conversions from Roman Catholicism to Evangelicalism? See here.

The number of people who believe something has little to do with its inherent veracity. A belief is true if it matches reality and false if it does not. It seems that Oliphint has merely used this recent publication as a platform to mention all the ways in which SES differs from his own tradition, and anyone who differs from that tradition is wrong.

A Remark on Piety and Truth

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There is something off putting about the way some in the Reformed tradition argue for their position. What is untoward in appealing to piety versus evidence and argument in such debates? Here a quote from Etienne Gilson’s The Unity of Philosophical Experience is helpful. He writes,

“This, says St. Bonaventura, is the mark of truly pious souls, that they claim nothing for themselves, but ascribe everything to God. Excellent as a rule of personal devotion, and as long as it is restricted to the sphere of religious feeling, such a principle can become dangerous when used as a criterion for theological truth. . . . In theology, as in any other science, the main question is not to be pious but to be right. For there is nothing pious in being wrong about God.” [8]

One should not be persuaded by claims that a position is more or less pious than another. What counts is whether or not it is true; this is the question to be answered.


SES and Academic Freedom

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At SES we are not beholden to any particular Protestant denomination, nor are we beholden to any particular Christian tradition. We are conservative Protestant Evangelical Thomists, Dispensational, Pre-millennial, non-Calvinistic, Inerrantists. We have the liberty on any issue to find solutions within any era of thought (secular or sacred) and claim these solutions for the Church. This freedom makes it very difficult for those in more codified traditions to appreciate the apparent eclecticism that emerges. SES is interested only in the truth. At times we might follow thinkers like Aquinas or Augustine; at other times, we might find Luther a solid guide. We might take guidance from Gary Habermas or N. T. Wright or William Lane Craig. Paul quotes pagan poets and references pagan idols in his service to the claims of Christianity; we should feel free to do likewise. It is a matter of matching our thoughts with reality and pursuing the evidence where it leads. These principles are not isolated to one thinker or tradition, and therefore neither is SES.

For more information about the ministry and educational programs ofSouthern Evangelical Seminary, request more information here!  

Listen to the Why Do You Believe? podcast to hear an interview with Dr. J. Thomas Bridges responding to the objections of Evangelical Thomism.

Reformed, Romanist or Papist? A Response to Dr. Scott Oliphint



End Notes

[1]  http://www3.nd.edu/~afreddos/courses/intro/aquinas.htm#A2 [accessed June 6, 2016].

[2] R. C. Sproul, Chosen by God (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1986), 46; emphasis in original.

[3] Ibid., 30-31.

[4] Ibid., 36-37

[5] Ibid., 54; emphasis in original.

[6] Space does not permit a detailed exposition of the Thomistic view of free choice and the three positions of the will (acceptance, rejection, and quiescent), but suffice it to say that the Thomistic view shares features of both Calvinism and Arminianism without reducing to either. These differences have everything to do with philosophical starting points and not merely jousting over exegesis.

[7]“Can we Prove Quran is From God?” accessed on June 6, 2016, http://www.godallah.com/is_quran_from_god.php.

[8] Etienne Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1999), 41-42 [emphasis mine].


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