Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


The charge of rationalism has often been made against the Protestant Reformed Churches. This charge has originated chiefly with defenders of common grace and the well-meant gospel offer. It is as old as our denomination.

The charge is a sort of defense of the almost intolerable position of those who, while claiming to be Calvinists, hold to doctrines quite contradictory to Calvinism. Calvinists hold, for example, to divine election; that is, that God from eternity chose His people in Christ and willed to save them and them alone through the sacrifice of His Son. The well-meant offer, while attempting to maintain the doctrine of election, holds that God wills to save all men, especially those who hear the gospel.

This is boldly and blatantly contradictory. God wills to save some and God wills to save all—at the same moment and in the same sense. It is in defense of that flat contradiction that the proponents of a well-meant gospel offer fall back on what they call either “paradox” or “apparent contradiction.” When the PRC maintain that God does not desire the salvation of all men, but that His will and desire to save is in fact His eternal decree of election, the PRC are charged with rationalism for refusing to admit flat-out contradiction.

Now, the position of the PRC is that Scripture has no contradictions, not even apparent ones, and that, therefore, all doctrines of Scripture form a consistent and logical system of doctrine. The PRC go a step further, in fact, and insist that, if it is not true that Scripture’s system of doctrine is logical, then no truth of God can be known at all. “Apparent contradictions” are contradictions. One cannot believe that God desires both to save all men and to save only some, any more than one can believe that a rose is both a flower and an asteroid.

That makes this question of rationalism an important one. Rationalism is by no means new. Beginning with Marcion (who subjected the Scriptures to rationalistic investigation in the third century) the church has always been troubled by two aberrations: mysticism and rationalism. We discussed mysticism in another connection; now we discuss rationalism in connection with the work of Thomas Aquinas.

The Rationalism of Thomas

Thomas Aquinas’ rationalism is not to be found in the fact that he constructed a systematic theology. He did this. It is called Summa Theologiae. From the viewpoint of its writing it was a masterful work. It became the criterion for subsequent Roman Catholic orthodoxy and it has continued to have its influence to the present. Popes spoke of it as being a perfect work without any flaw. Others had constructed systematic theologies before Thomas, but his outshone them all.

Thomas’ rationalism lay in his entire approach to theology. He consciously determined to integrate the truth of the Word of God with the philosophy of Aristotle. As one writer put it, “He took from Aristotle the frame for his theological system.”

Some are of the opinion that Thomas paid this kind of attention to Aristotle because he was afraid that Aristotle’s popularity in the universities would lead Europe to abandon the faith of the church. By integrating Aristotle’s philosophy with the church’s theology, the faith of the church could be saved.

Aristotle was the last great Greek philosopher. He brought the whole of Greek philosophy to a kind of culmination. While his philosophical system had been unknown in Europe during the time of the barbarian migrations, it entered Europe, partly through translations made by the Mohammedan Arabs, who had penetrated into Europe through Spain and had come as far north as southern France; partly through the crusades, for some crusaders had returned from the East with the priceless manuscripts of Greek and Roman writers; and partly from the increasing trade which Europe conducted with the East. All these events had sparked the Renaissance in Europe, that revival of learning which had made the ancient manuscripts of Greece and Rome its formal principle.

The Renaissance was humanism at its highest and worst. But the Renaissance influenced the whole of Europe, captured the church, insidiously seeped into the thinking of the theologians of Europe, and made Aristotle and Plato the darlings of the universities.

Humanism teaches that man is the center of all things. The world is under man’s control, the object of man’s investigation, here for man’s enjoyment and benefit, and to be used to advance the development of mankind. But humanism also, in its very nature, exalts man’s reason to a pinnacle of power. Man’s pleasure may be the measure of all things, but man’s mind is the measure of all truth.

Aristotle had constructed an imposing philosophical system. Many in the Middle Ages were enamored with it. They considered it to be, although with some imperfections, God’s truth itself. If they were, therefore, to do justice to God’s truth in its entirety, they were required to meld the philosophies of the ancients with the scriptural revelation. This was the rationalism of Thomas Aquinas.

Some grounds for this had, of course, to be laid. The grounds were clear and carefully laid out. The unconverted and unregen-erated man is capable of discovering natural truth, that is, truth concerning God which can be learned from the speech of God in creation. This is learned by man’s reason. “The truths of natural reason cannot be at variance with those given by revelation.” Natural man not only knows God, but knows Him as the highest good; and, quite naturally, earnestly desires this highest good—though he is in need of Scripture in order to be saved by it. Hence, a complete system of truth had to incorporate in it the “truths of natural reason” which unregenerated men had discovered.

These views have been modified somewhat over the years. A major issue in the common grace controversy in 1924 was exactly this question. The Christian Reformed Church’s theologians maintained that common grace enabled the wicked to discover truth in some measure. Many found good in the ancient Greek philosophers. My own Greek teacher, while I was studying at Calvin, often bemoaned the fact that Plato had come within one ladder-rung of God, but had stopped just a bit short.

When I was attending grade school, we were often admonished to become missionaries, for there were millions of unsaved souls who knew God and longed for Him, but who would perish unless we went to tell them about Jesus Christ revealed in the Scriptures.

Thomas did not speak of “common” grace as such, but he did believe much the same thing. He held that man’s pure natural powers, which he received at creation, were enhanced by a further gift of “original righteousness,” which completed man’s perfection. This is the doctrine of superadded grace. While man lost this original righteousness at the fall, he retained hisnatural powers of mind and will, and was thus able to discover truth and desire that which is right and good. Just as his natural powers of mind were able to give man knowledge of the truth, so “the natural inclinations of the will serve the divine principle of the Christian life.”

This is rationalism with a vengeance. It is to me ironic that those who in 1924 held to these ideas because of their common grace and thus exalted the natural powers of man’s reason should charge the PRC with rationalism. One feels like saying, Physician, heal thyself.

Rationalism is totally unacceptable to the believing child of God. It is so on the basis of the biblical doctrine of total depravity. It is true that man remained, after the fall, a rational man. That is not grace; that is the great tragedy of the fall. He was still a man, but now incapable of doing any good, an enemy of God and bound for hell.

But the fall had two consequences when God executed His divine sentence upon man. It ruined his powers of mind, so that the rationality which remains is only a small glimmering of his original excellent gifts (something like the ability of a child in kindergarten to understand differential equations and calculus), and the gifts which he retained were now totally in the service of sin. Man suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). He is an enemy of God. He changes the truth into the lie. He hates God and deliberately constructs idols, so that he will not confess God as the only God who must be worshiped. He cannot and will not come to the knowledge of the truth, as that is made known either through the creation or through Scripture.

Thus the philosophical systems of Greece’s greatest philosophers were idols. Sophisticated idols. Attractive idols. But idols for all that. They were Aristotle’s way of changing the truth of the invisible God into the lie and worshiping the creature rather than the Creator.

Rationalism is that kind of exaltation of man’s reason, which claims that man has the power to discover truth. This was the rationalism of Thomas Aquinas; this is still the rationalism of today.

The Consequences of Rationalism

We cannot show in this brief article how that rationalism worked out in Thomas’ theology. But there is one point that needs to be emphasized. Pelagianism (and Arminianism) is rationalistic. Thomas was a Pelagian. Rome was Pelagian. Thomas was a member and loyal servant of corrupt Rome.

Without denying that Thomas emphasized many truths which are part and parcel of our own inheritance of the Reformed faith, it is necessary to point out that Thomas left room for the meritorious value of good works. He had to if he was to be loyal to his church.

He did this not only by his exaltation of man’s reason, but also by teaching that “the natural inclinations of the will serve the divine principle of the Christian life.” That is, the human will is free, free to choose for God and for good. Thus man’s works merit with God, for man does them to God’s glory by his own natural powers.

This had its effect upon Thomas’ doctrine of the atonement. Our readers might recall that, some time ago, we discussed the doctrine of the atonement held by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm taught an absolute necessity of the atonement. That is, Anselm taught that sin was so great and man so hopelessly lost that the only way that man could be saved was by the death of the Son of God. Aquinas did not agree with this great church father. He could not. Anselm’s view left no room for human merit, for man was able to do nothing good. And so Thomas held to a relative necessity of the atonement of Christ. Christ died, partly to atone for sin, but also partly to have a good influence on man, so that man would exercise his natural powers of will in choosing for God. That is a destruction of the atonement. As our Heidelberg Catechism points out, Jesus is either a complete Savior, or He is no Savior at all (Lord’s Day 11).

Are the PRC Rationalistic?

One more point has to be made. The PRC reject with vehemence the charge that they are rationalistic in their theology because they deny a well-meant gospel offer. The PRC do not reject total depravity, but insist that “the carnal mind is enmity against God.” They have no desire to exalt man’s mind as a discoverer and arbiter of truth.

What the PRC do is insist that the truth is one because God is one and because His revelation is one in Jesus Christ. When the PRC, following the confessional heritage of the church, systematize theology so that all the relations between the different truths are discovered in Scripture and are included in the confession of the church, they are doing what Scripture demands be done. They are showing the glorious unity of God in Jesus Christ as made known in the truth of God’s Word. The truth is a logical whole. That is not rationalism. That is the confessional Reformed faith.

We must never be frightened off by the bogeyman of rationalism, so that we are distracted from this great and glorious calling which God has given to the church and which the church carries out in its pursuit of the truth.

But we must condemn rationalism in whatever form it appears.