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A Critique of Transcendental Thomism

Thomas Aquinas is one of the most influential theologians and Christian philosophers that has ever lived.  His synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy with Christian theology, especially that of St. Augustine, has shaped the development of Christian thought since the 13th century. He, like St. Augustine, Boethius, St. Anselm, and St. Albert the Great (among others), was especially interested in the relationship between faith and reason. Throughout history from then to the present, people have tried to alter Thomism to address more questions.  One such branch is Transcendental Thomism.

Transcendental Thomism is an attempt to apply Kant’s transcendental method to Thomism. Kant argued that people do not know real objective things, but only subjective impressions constructed by the person to make sense of the things sensed and impose categories upon them. On face value, it seems hard to reconcile a subjective construction of reality with Aquinas who affirmed “thus the human understanding has a form, viz. intelligible light, which of itself is sufficient for knowing certain intelligible things, viz. those we can come to know through the senses” (ST II, Q 109 A 1 co.).

In addition to having a seemingly incompatible epistemological foundation, the version of Transcendental Thomism that was promoted by Karl Rahner appears to have a number of other very divergent thoughts. Rahner asserts (as interpreted by Aidan Nichols) that “transcendental philosophy can anticipate the content of Christian revelation... the life, death, and resurrection of Christ are exemplary rather than efficacious...[and] other faiths are ordinary means of salvation” (Rowland, 63). It is very difficult to see how these can be squared with Thomism.

Aquinas firmly asserts that “The existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles” (ST I, Q 2, A 2 ,ad. 1).  Faith is a supernatural gift, and it cannot be known by reason alone.  This stands in stark contradiction to the idea that any kind of philosophy can be used to know the content of Christian revelation.

Aquinas wrote that the “way of efficiency, inasmuch as Christ's flesh, wherein He endured the Passion, is the instrument of the Godhead, so that His sufferings and actions operate with Divine power for expelling sin” (ST III, Q 49, A I, ad. 1).  Clearly, Aquinas believed that the efficient cause for the forgiveness of sins was the Passion of Christ. There is a sense that Aquinas thought that Passion was also exemplary, but to reduce the Passion to that is completely alien to his thoughts.

Finally, it is asserted that all religions are ordinary means of salvation.  However, Aquinas wrote that “there is no entering into salvation outside the Church, just as in the time of the deluge there was none outside the Ark, which denotes the Church” (ST III, Q 73 A III, co.). It seems highly unlikely that Aquinas would entertain any notion that there is any way to be saved apart from Our Lord and Savior.

It would appear that Transcendental Thomism is nearly completely at odds with Classical Thomism. There is a great epistemological and metaphysical divide between the two ideas.  It is difficult to imagine how they could be reconciled.  They may use the same words, but it appears to rely on ambiguity of meaning to maintain any semblance of continuity.


Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae, Kevin Knight, 2017, Accessed 7 February 2020.

Rowland, Tracy. Catholic Theology. Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017.

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