Thomas Aquinas – “Don’t Call Me a Philosopher.”

I’ve always thought of Aquinas as both a theologian and a philosopher. I’ve been reading The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas and in an essay by Mark D. Jordan entitled “Theology and philosophy” he says because the term “philosopher” “often had a pejorative sense for thirteenth-century Latin authors” that Aquinas would never want to be called a philosopher.  “Aquinas was by vocation, training, and self understanding an ordained teacher of an inherited theology. He would have been scandalized to hear himself described as an innovator in fundamental matters and more scandalized still to hear himself—or any Christian—called a ‘philosopher.’” (232) But today Aquinas has such a strong association with Aristotle that I think he is often considered first a philosopher then a theologian. Jordan helpfully puts what the mindset of philosophy was for Aquinas.

“For Aquinas, philosophia names, first, a hierarchy of bodies of knowledge. These can be built up as intellectual virtues in human souls. Philosophia is, in the second place, a pattern of teaching such virtues, a pattern enacted in communities of learners and in textual traditions. Aquinas conceived philosophy as embodied in historical communities, in lines of teachers and students who shared ways of life, languages, topics, and procedures. Such philosophical schools were among the glories of pagan antiquity. But membership in them did not, on his view, befit Christians.” (235)

Such associations still exist in some Christian circles. They distrust philosophy seeing it as vain speculation at best or spiritually dangerous at worst. But philosophy has come a long way since Aquinas and some very important Christian philosophers are now widely-recognized by scholars as advancing a Christian worldview in the field of philosophy. Three names that immediately come to mind are Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Richard Swinburne. Aquinas believed, according to Jordan, that “[p]hilosophical inquiries ought always to serve a theological end.” (236) I think the men I’ve listed here have certainly done that, each in their own way.

I’ve always had a soft spot for philosophy. While I was at Trinity I debated for the longest time on what cognate I should choose to go with my major (Christian Thought): philosophy or church history. As it turns out church history won the day and I’m still happy with that decision.  I consider philosophy to be a valid and appropriate area of study for Christians. Even Aquinas saw the benefits of philosophy. Jordan notes that “Aquinas uses philosophy and explicitly urges its use on writes of theology.” (235)  Aquinas wrote, “those who use philosophical texts in sacred teaching, by subjugating them to faith, do not mix water with wine, but turn water into wine.” (As quoted by Jordan, 235) Plantinga, Wolterstorff and Swinburne are prime examples, I think, of Christian philosophers who are turning water into wine. May the Lord continue to bless their studies and those who come behind them.


Alvin Plantinga                                               Nicholas Wolterstorff

Richard Swinburne


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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One Response to Thomas Aquinas – “Don’t Call Me a Philosopher.”

  1. I would argue rather than philosophy being pejorative in “some” Christian circles, that it’s still the case in “most” Christian circles. The fact/value, secular/sacred, upper story/lower story, faith/reason dichotomies come to mind. Unless and until Christianity is viewed by its constituents as a knowledge tradition that is not opposed to faith (all due respect to Kierkegaardians), then this will continue being the case in “most” Christian circles.


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