Crossing the Tiber in a Boat Called ‘Analogy of Being’

In recent posts I have suggested that rather than carry forward the trajectory initiated by the Reformation, the Protestant ‘orthodox’ who came later actually reversed direction in many ways, one of which was their return to the synthesis of faith and reason (and the corresponding analogia entis, i.e. ‘analogy of being’) which allowed for the integration of ‘Christian Aristotelianism’ in their theological systems. One of the key sources from which I have drawn in making this argument (although he would no doubt disagree with some of my conclusions!) is the brilliant historian Richard Muller whose knowledge of the medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation periods is unparalleled. Recently I came across an article of Muller’s that, even more than anything else of his that I have read, drives this point home with unmistakable clarity. In fact, the title of the article in many ways says it all: ‘The Dogmatic Function of St. Thomas’ “Proofs”: A Protestant Appreciation’. Here st-thomas-aqhow Muller expresses (without missing the opportunity to take a jab at Barth) his appreciation for Thomas Aquinas and, as a result, the analogia entis and the synthesis of faith and reason that post-Reformation Protestant theology inherited from medieval Catholicism:

We now have a clear picture of the intellectual road traveled by Thomas in his approach, via the proofs to the doctrine of God. As Gilson has pointed out on many occasions, Thomas recognized two distinct but complementary orders of knowing, faith and reason. Faith provides us with truth inaccessible to reason but nonetheless not unreasonable. Reason serves the elaboration and argumentative defense of the faith. In order for this alliance to occur, faith and reason must be shown to have the same goal and to be capable of cooperation in seeking it. Thus Thomas first sets forth (q. 1) the basis of theology in faith and then poses the problem of the alliance with reason (q. 1, a. 8). Then, second Thomas presents the grounds for the use of reason in theology by way of the proofs (q. 2). He has now shown that both faith and reason point toward the God who is the proper object of sacra doctrina. He has also prepared the way for the presentation of a doctrine of God and, indeed, of a whole theological system, that is at once biblical and rational. The two initial questions of the Summa, therefore, the discussion of “the nature and domain of sacred doctrine” and the discussion of rational knowledge of God, together constitute a demonstration of the possibility of theological discourse…

This perspective on the dogmatic function of the [Thomas Aquinas’ five] proofs also provides us with a keen critique of the neo-orthodox theological enterprise. The neo-orthodox claim that the self-revelation of God excludes all rational proofs of God’s existence, far from manifesting a problem in traditional theism actually demonstrates a fatal flaw in neo-orthodoxy. It is the capacity for rational discourse that moves theology from mere confession of faith to the systematic elaboration of the articles of faith into a genuine body of doctrine. When the demonstration of the instrumental function of reason is excluded, theology cannot justify its own systematic elaboration: the fideism of Barth’s neo-othodoxy negates the very discourse designed to present neo-orthodox theology as a systematic alternative to earlier forms of Protestant dogmatics.

In other words, the Barthian denial of the analogia entis, with its radical and virtually nominalist contention that there is no analogy between God and the created order, not only rids theology of the magisterial function of reason typical of the rational supernaturalism of the eighteenth century, but also rids theology of the instrumental function of reason that balthasarThomas outlined so carefully in the eighth article of Question 1 and in Question 2 of the Summa—and that the Protestant dogmaticians of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries assumed in their construction of theological system. The analogy of being and the proofs provided Thomas, in the Summa, not with “prior knowledge of something which resembles creation” but with a limited rational knowing set into the context of faith and sacra doctrina of a necessary being—a “something,” if you will, not so much resembling creation as set over and above it, and because of its being set over and above creation, capable of being identified as God. This is not “a prior knowledge” either in the sense of a knowledge prior to the inchoate apprehension of the divine or to the confession of faith in the divine or in the sense of a knowledge upon which faith can be grounded. Rather it is a knowledge arising from our nature and capable of serving faith in an instrumental capacity even as it is being perfected by grace.

By way of conclusion, we may simply recognize that the proofs of God’s existence occupy an important position in dogmatic theology distinct from their function in apologetics because the rational demonstration of the existence of a “something” the name of which is one of the names of God is also the demonstra­tion of the proper function of reason in theological discourse. This demonstration neither replaces nor subverts faith but rather shows us that faith is capable of sustaining itself in argument. Traditional Protestant dogmatics, as written between the Reformation and the Enlightenment, recognized the need to define the relationship of faith and reason, theology and philosophy and occasionally, somewhat grudgingly, admitted that despite its intense polemic against Roman Catholicism it had learned the technique of constructing a synthesis of the ways of knowing from the great medieval doctors. That synthesis is still necessary to the construction of a consistently stated and convincingly argued dogmatic theology. To the extent that Protestant theology has allowed a misunderstanding of the proofs to confuse its view of the function of reason it has also erected a barrier in the way of its own theological development.[1]

In my view, this is a massively revealing statement on the part of Muller. It shows that his ‘Protestant appreciation’ for Aquinas and his dictum that ‘grace perfects nature’, for the analogia entis, and for the medieval synthesis of faith and reason ultimately consists in his recognition that these are not ancillary but essential elements of post-Reformation Protestant dogmatics without which they could not be constructed, “consistently stated”, nor “convincingly argued”. It also brings to light one of the main reasons for which Muller opposes Barth and so-called neo-orthodoxy. As Muller rightly discerns, Barth’s denial of the analogia entis was inimical to the Protestant theological systems of the 16th and 17th centuries. That is to say, without the analogia entis and its corresponding synthesis of faith and reason, Protestant orthodox theology (e.g. the Westminster Standards) would either fall apart or require significant revision.

So this leaves us with a provocative question: if it is true, as Keith Johnson has so convincingly argued, that Barth’s “reasons for his rejection of the analogia entis stand directly in line with the reasons Luther and the Reformers gave for turning away from Roman Catholicism centuries earlier”[2], then what can this mean for the later Protestant reappropriation of the analogia entis except that it constituted a fundamental reversal away from Luther and the Reformers and back to Roman Catholicism? Does not Muller concede as much when he notes that “[t]raditional Protestant dogmatics … occasionally, somewhat grudgingly, admitted that despite its intense polemic against Roman Catholicism it had learned the technique of constructing a synthesis of the ways of knowing from the great medieval doctors”?


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 1992. ‘The Dogmatic Function of St. Thomas’ “Proofs”: A Protestant Appreciation’ in Fides et Historia 24, pp.24, 28-29, emphasis added.

[2] Johnson, K.L., 2010. Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis. London/New York: T&T Clark, p.121.


10 thoughts on “Crossing the Tiber in a Boat Called ‘Analogy of Being’

  1. highplainsparson 19 October 2016 / 16:47

    I, too have immensely benefitted from Muller. But I would tend to think, agreeing with him, that the first generation Reformers retained much of medieval theology, only disagreeing on certain key points. Much continuity is assumed in those doctrines that were not part of their debate with Rome. That’s to say, the systematic theology of the 17th century didn’t mark a return to Rome. It retained Christian theology that the Reformers had never rejected.


    • Jonathan Kleis 19 October 2016 / 19:38

      Thanks for commenting! I would agree with you had I been talking about the aspects of continuity between the Reformers and their medieval predecessors. But in this post I am specifically addressing the Thomistic synthesis of faith and reason (which was largely Aristotelian in Thomas’ case) on the basis of the ‘analogia entis’. This is something that even Muller admits was a difference between the Reformers and the Protestant scholastics. This in itself was not of course without medieval precedent as both Scotus and even more so Ockham diverged from Thomas on this point.

      So Muller writes: “One of the elements of late medieval Scotist and nominalist theology that had a profound impact on Luther was its denial of any analogy between God and man and its consequent recognition of the impossibility of formulating a rational metaphysic concerning God. All knowledge of God must rest on authoritative testimony, primarily on that of Scripture. Luther not only denied any recourse of theology to an analogia entis between God and man and insisted on the necessity of scriptural revelation, but also argued, in the light of his denial of human merit and his sense of the immediacy of Christ as revealer and savior, against any rational theologia gloriae that claimed to describe God as he is in himself and proposed that our earthly theology be a theologia crucis, conformed to the pattern of God’s revelation in Christ. Calvin, similarly, allows a glorious revelation of God in creation that ought to be understood by reason—but argues that human beings are so corrupted by sin that apart from salvation in Christ and the saving form of revelation given in Scripture, knowledge of God remains inaccessible to them” (PRRD, vol. 1, p.223).

      Since Roman dogma depended (and still does!) in large part on Aquinas, the direction away from Aquinas by Luther and Calvin represented a significant divergence and the reappropriation of Aquinas by later Protestants (and anticipated by Vermigli and Zanchi) did constitute, at this point, a move back to Rome.


      • highplainsparson 19 October 2016 / 20:06

        I understand your point, but I think you are painting with too broad a brush, when you contrast Luther and Calvin with Aquinas on one specific point, and then go on to make it seem like they didn’t retain anything from Aquinas. Luther and Calvin believed that unbelievers could not access God by reason, because of sin. But so did the Protestant orthodox of the next century. Their appropriation of reason was in the context of believing Christians learning what may be known of God from natural revelation, corrected by special revelation (because of sin.) It was for the establishment of Protestant academies for Christians to learn theology, natural sciences, etc. that they appropriated Thomas’s method. They were not suggesting that the natural man may know God from nature, any more than Luther and Calvin did. Luther and Calvin had not rejected outright the application of Aristotle’s method to theology–only they insisted on a Sola Scriptura principle that would correct any deficiencies in it.


      • Jonathan Kleis 19 October 2016 / 20:33

        There are a lot of problems with what you’ve just said here, so just to be brief I’ll highlight only a couple and then reinforce my main point. First, it’s an overstatement to say that the Protestant orthodox didn’t believe that unbelievers could access God by reason. The whole intent behind the maxim ‘grace perfects nature’ is to secure the fundamental continuity between what is known naturally – that is apart from grace – and what is known on the basis of grace. This maxim, repeated by the orthodox (I think immediately of Turretin), necessarily implies that while the knowledge of unbelievers is flawed, it is nevertheless true. The second point flows from the first. Luther and Calvin were much more nominalist and Scotist in their leanings, respectively. Both nominalism and Scottish sought to undermine the continuity between the philosophy embedded in Thomas’ maxim, and thus they were not nearly as indebted to Thomas, nor to Aristotle, as the later orthodox.

        Ultimately, however, nothing that you have said refutes my fundamental point. Luther, especially, explicitly disavowed the ‘grace perfects nature’ idea along with the ‘analogia entis’. As Leonardo De Chirico has convincingly shown, these notions are absolutely fundamental to all Roman Catholic theology. In fact, De Chirico shows that the necessarily give rise to all RC theology. Thus, insofar as the Protestant orthodox, in contrast with Luther and Calvin, reappropriated them, they took a step back in the direction of Rome. This basic point seems to me irrefutable.


  2. Jonathan Roberts 24 October 2016 / 04:49

    Could you please show me a few texts were Luther and Calvin affirm nominalism? I see people say this sort of thing quite a bit, but I they tend not to point me ad fontes.


    • Jonathan Kleis 24 October 2016 / 08:43

      Hi Jonathan, thanks for your question. Luther and Calvin don’t affirm nominalism (or Scotism) in an explicit sense. You won’t find them (at least to my knowledge) saying “We are nominalists”. Rather it comes through in the ways in which they tend to approach certain doctrines. So for example, they differ from Aquinas on human reason’s intrinsic capacity to know God in creation and emphasize the necessity of revelation. Distinguishing between faith and reason, as Luther and Calvin do, is a classic Scotist/nominalist move. Moreover, their strong emphasis on the will of God as the final determination of all things (implying a distinction between God’s absolute power – what he could have willed – and ordained power – what he actually willed) is also a hallmark of Scotist/nominalist thought. Thus, it’s not so much that they affirm Scotism/nominalism as such, but that the Scotist/nominalist influence can be found underlying their approach to a number of theological questions.


      • Jonathan Roberts 24 October 2016 / 18:04


        Thanks for your response. I think that there are some issues here:

        1) Scotus was not a nominalist, he was a moderate realist (see Pasnau’s Metaphysical Themes and the most recent philosophy without gaps podcast on Scotus).

        2) I see Luther and Calvin everywhere implicitly (if not explicitly) affirming realism about natures. Particularly in their Christology. One simply cannot affirm Chalcedonian Christology while being a nominalist.

        I’m defining nominalism as the rejection of realism about universals. Does your discussion here operate under a different definition?




      • Jonathan Kleis 24 October 2016 / 18:12

        Hi Jonathan, I think I can answer both issues at the same time. I am well aware that Scotus was not a nominalist. The reason why I answered like I did (apart from space issues) was that neither Luther nor Calvin can be called either Scotists or nominalists in the strict sense of the term, as you yourself state in point 2. Rather, (following Richard Muller) I would say that he can see the influences of both, sometimes stronger, other times not so much, on Luther and Calvin, but they were beholden to Scripture enough that they did not let those influences override their desire to be faithful above all to Scripture. Thus, we could say, as Muller does, that there are Scotist or nominalist “accents” in their theology, but they cannot be accurately designated by either one of these labels in an absolute sense.


      • Jonathan Roberts 24 October 2016 / 18:17

        Jonathan, thanks for the response. Where do Luther or Calvin implicitly reject realism about natures? Or are they implicitly somewhat nominalist in some other way?


      • Jonathan Kleis 25 October 2016 / 11:04

        I wouldn’t say that either one reject realism in any way. As I said before, I would say that the nominalist “accents” come through in their understanding of the relation between revelation and reason in the knowledge of God and in their emphasis on the sovereign will of God as ultimately determinative of all things, although without the more speculative flights of fancy that Ockham engaged in.


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