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St. Thomas Aquinas's seminal work the Summa Theologica was an attempt to catalog all the theological arguments ever conceived.

Much of the reasoning is rooted in the Natural Law and it's what Catholics believe today. It's the reason we've got such strong opinions on abortion, birth control, embryonic stem cell research, homosexual "marriage" and more even though private interpretation of the Bible could potentially lead one to believe otherwise.

What I wonder, is how much of a common ground is the Natural Law (specifically as it relates to the Summa) and how did the reformers (Luther, Calvin, Wesley, etc.) decide whether or not to accept it?

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Great question. (Not that I've any idea what the answer is). – DJClayworth Sep 9 '11 at 17:58
An interesting aside: if natural law is that which is universal, and Christian views on, say, homosexuality are demonstrably not universal, it is hard to argue that the view is based on natural law. – Marc Gravell Sep 9 '11 at 18:11
@Marc, the natural law argument on homosexuality has more to do with the purpose and nature of sex and marriage than it does with man's capacity, desire or inclination to love another man. The natural law says homosexuality is a disordered way of loving. It also says that any barren sex is a disordered way of loving. The same principles that apply to fornicators applies to active homosexuals. The only thing left to argue is which is more destructive. – Peter Turner Sep 9 '11 at 18:15
I guess my point is just this: When someone says "moral precept X is based on natural law", they're making a pretty modest claim -- it simply means "it is logically possible to establish the truth of X without recourse to revelation". It certainly doesn't mean that X is obvious, universally-agreed-upon, easily reached, etc. etc. – Ben Dunlap Dec 21 '11 at 22:35

I can only speak for Calvin. AFAIK, he never explicitly interacts with Aquinas or the Summa. In Institutes he does reference "The Schoolmen" many times, but he seems to have in mind mostly later-medieval theologians rather than the angelic doctor himself. That's a shame, because Aquinas would have been a much more worthy opponent.

Protestants in general tend to be skeptical of natural-law arguments. Calvin himself believed that our only reliable knowledge about God comes from special revelation and he is very hard on the "Papists" for making stuff up (i.e., the incredible detail some writers claim to know about the kinds and hierarchies of the angels).

That said, I believe Calvin would have come down on the same side as the Catholic Church on the issues you mentioned. He certainly would have opposed contraception.


Here are a few google results, suggesting that Calvin probably did not have access to the Summa:

Calvin on Aquinas

Luther, Calvin and Aquinas: On Grace

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James Dolezol, a recent doctoral graduate of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, has written a book (which was his dissertation) on divine simplicity in which he traces the agreement of Reformed scholasticism to Thomist scholasticism on the doctrine of God. I have not yet read this book, but I was told about it by a friend of Dolezol's, and I listened to an interview of him about it on Christ the Center. He demonstrates that the Reformed scholastics fundamentally agree with Aquinas on doctrine of God (and the Summa Theologica is of course a major work in the development of Aquinas' theology proper—it is the first subject he broaches). My friend who knows Dolezol and is himself a graduate of Westminster and well-read, told me that Aquinas was John Owen's favorite theologian (an assertion which I find astonishing and difficult to believe). Owen is considered by some Reformed scholars to be the foremost Puritan theologian, and the greatest theologian since Calvin up to his time.

Thus the Reformers did not simply throw out the Summma Theologica. I am, however, unversed on their respective positions on natural law, which @gmoothart has addressed briefly in his answer. Francis Schaeffer faults Thomas in How Shall We Then Live? and Escape from Reason for his epistemic nature/grace dichotomy, which is the basis of the Thomist conception of natural law. I believe that Schaeffer does this on the basis of his faithfulness to classic Reformed theology. Nevertheless, that is not a direct answer with regard to the original Reformer's position on Aquinas' natural law doctrine. Dolezol and Owen may be a good starting point for a further investigation of the question.

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Protestants like Kant, although not mentioning the Summa by name, harshly criticized its arguments and also the the medieval "Schools" that were associated with it. See this quote from Kant's Critique of Pure Reason regarding the "Monopoly of the Schools".

The Summa threatens even 20th century Freemasonry, many of whom are Protestants:

The difficulties between Church and State in Italy had culminated seven years before in the nomination of Crispi, a man wholly hostile to the Church [and a friend of Garibaldi, another Freemason], as Prime Minister. On the eve of the elections in 1890 his friend Semmi, like himself a Freemason and Grand Master of the Italian lodges, had spoken strongly on the necessity of destroying the Great Enemy [i.e., the Catholic Church]. "We have applied the knife to the centre of superstition," he wrote in a wonderful combination of mixed metaphors, "and the very presence of ***** at the head of Government is a guarantee that the Vatican will fall beneath the blows of our vivifying hammer. Let us work with all our strength to scatter its stones, that we may build with them a temple to an emancipated nation. The enemy is the Pope; we must wage a relentless war against him. The Papacy, although but a phantom presiding over ruins, yet reflects a certain glory, waving as it does in face of, and in defiance of the world, the Cross and the Summa Theologica. A miserable crowd still prostrates itself to adore. It must be war to the knife."

The Life of Pius X by F. A. Forbes, imprimatur 1918, pp. 45-46 (my emphasis)

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