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Aquinas: The Dumb Ox

by G.K. Chesterton

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Most Protestants get nervous when I recommend a book written by a Catholic apologist about one of Catholicism’s favorite saints. Isn’t it enough that we read Thomas Aquinas? Must we also read a biography by G.K. Chesterton lauding Aquinas?

There is certainly reason for concern. Chesterton often overstates his case, and he becomes less and less lucid the more he tries to defend Catholicism instead of mere Christianity. I still can’t believe that the same man who wrote Orthodoxy, one of the greatest defenses of the faith, also wrote The Thing, one of the most pitiful attacks on Protestants.

Further, there is little doubt that Chesterton hates John Calvin and distrusts anyone who is Reformed. On page 106 of this work, he says that the Manichean philosophy (a brand of Gnosticism) reappeared later in “the form of Calvinism.” He argues this because he believes “Calvinists taught that God originates the whole work of damnation commonly attributed to Satan.”

Admittedly, if I considered myself a Calvinist I would not feel as charitable toward Chesterton. But even Calvinists should read him, as long as they bear in mind that he will go overboard on Catholic doctrine. There is no doubt that Chesterton was a Christian, but for some reason (probably the wishy-washiness of the leading “Protestant” church in England), he was drawn to the Catholic Church. When he writes about his Christian faith, he is brilliant. When he puts on the hat that makes him the champion of Catholicism, he is intolerable. Fortunately, he doesn’t beat that hobby horse too often in this work.

Instead, he spends a great deal of time here pointing out the important truth that early Christians had a tendency to be tainted by Gnosticism. He knows the impact that Plato had on a lot of Christian thinkers, and he hurries to point out that Plato had the wrong idea about the physical world: “Plato might despise the flesh; but God had not despised it.”

Stated bluntly, this truth seems so obvious that we feel we don’t need to read Chesterton to understand it. This is exactly why we need Chesterton: when he gets things right, he can express the deepest truths in ways that are easily apprehended. If there was a Protestant writer who could speak difficult truths and manage paradoxes as effortlessly as Chesterton, we wouldn’t need Chesterton. That, as they say, is the rub.

by Jeff Baldwin