Kreeft Critiques Cultural Decline


Peter J. Kreeft. 2021. How to Destroy Western Civilization and Other Ideas from the Cultural Abyss. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Hardly a day passes without someone explaining sharing their views about U.S. cultural decline. This morning after my swim a woman in the net lane introduced herself and expounded at great length on why she sent her kids to a Catholic school. At noon, I heard comparisons to the Book of Judges and the Deuteronomic cycle (Deut 30:1-3). More typically, these discussions focus on bad politics and things like rampant drug use or exotic sexual practices. When I heard about Peter Kreeft’s new book on this subject, I immediately ordered a copy.


In his book, How to Destroy Western Civilization and Other Ideas from the Cultural Abyss, Peter Kreeft starts with a brilliant statement of the obvious. To save Western Civilization, start by having children (7). What is ontologically obvious is, however, not obvious to everyone—only a philosopher (or an astute student of the Bible) would be mindful of the priority of ontology.

Kreeft goes on to observe that a third of the pregnancies in North America end in abortion (8). Everyone wants to have sex, far fewer want to raise children—it is the religious people who have the most children; they are the also the happiest and live the longest (11). Thus, while the absence of children is an important indicator of cultural decline, their presence is indicator of cultural and personal advance.[1]

Background and Organization

Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College, a Catholic school. His doctorate is from Fordham University.

Kreeft must believe that cultural decline is death by a thousand cuts because he treats the subject with eighteen chapter-essays on a number of pertinent topics. These essays stand on their own without obvious connection to one another. They are:

1.    How to destroy Western Civilization.

2.    What can Chicken Little do?

3.    The unmentionable elephant in the living room of the religious liberty debate.

4.    The paradox of poverty.

5.    The logic of liberalism.

6.    The social, moral, and sexual effects of symbolic logic.

7.    Twelve core values.

8.    Traditionalism and progressivism.

9.    C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the culture wars.

10. Heros.

11. What is a liberal?

12. What is the key to a good society?

13. Seventeen freedoms.

14. Four confusions about freedom.

15. Is Agnosticism in religion the default position?

16. A word about Islam and a defense of my controversial book about it.

17. Pity vs. pacifism.

18. Judgment. (v)

The pragmatic, postmodern art is a collage so to describe and rebut problems with it, one might reasonably employ an alternative collage.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Inherent in the observation that our cultural decline is a case of death by a thousand cuts is that small things matter. When we read in Leviticus—be holy because I am holy—we see God as concerned with details. We clearly are not. When Kreeft criticizes a thousand incoherent arguments that lay at the foundation of the postmodern era, it evokes the torture that a thinking person must endure being symbolically chained to an ant hill in the middle of such philosophical chaos. Ants possess no poisonous venom that can kill a person, yet the sum of a thousand ant bites is most certainly life-threatening. Those chained to the hill will no doubt appreciate the incineration of a few ants.

Thus, Peter Kreeft’s How to Destroy Civilization and other Ideas from the Cultural Abysis a delight to read for the reflective soul.


[1] The fact that Hispanics are the only ethic group in the United States where the fertility rate is above 2.1 children per woman, which is necessary for a stable population, may be related to their status as immigrants—they have had the smallest exposure to the negative factors leading to U.S. cultural decline.

Kreeft Critiques Cultural Decline

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Complete Spirituality. Monday Monologues, April 1, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In today’s podcast, I will be Praying to Look Up and talk about Complete Spirituality.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

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Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Complete Spirituality. Monday Monologues, April 1, 2019 (podcast)

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Toward a Complete Spirituality

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In my personal journey to understand the depth of Christian spirituality I have frequently cited the need to consider the four questions typically posed in philosophy, which are:

1. Metaphysics—who is God?

2. Anthropology—who are we?

3. Epistemology—how do we know?

4. Ethics—what do we do about it? (Kreeft 2007, 6)

As an author, my first two books—A Christian Guide to Spirituality and Life in Tension—address the metaphysical question and my third book—Called Along the Way—explores the anthropological question in the first person. My fourth book, Simple Faith, examined the epistemological question. In this book, I have focused on ethics, the fourth question. While seeking a complete spirituality may seem like an arbitrary decision, serious problems arise when any one of these questions is neglected.

Neglect of Metaphysics

Postmodern culture’s almost exclusive focus on the physical world neglects the metaphysical. Metaphysics literally means above physics or, better, beyond physics. Postmodern people struggle to understand God, especially his transcendence.

Having created the known universe, God stands apart from it or, in other words, he transcends the universe. For us as mortal human beings, there is no path up the mountain, God must come down to us. As Christians, we believe that he came to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Evidence of the neglect of metaphysics shows up in the popular expression: I am spiritual, just not religious. Here spirituality is defined as limited to the human experience, especial feelings of ecstasy—great joy or happiness, even if drug induced. While this is nothing new, postmodern people seem stuck in moment of time believing that everything is new. More to the point, however, is the observation that the neglect of metaphysics is rampant in our time.

Neglect of Anthropology

For Christians, the neglect of anthropology manifests itself in the acceptance of Greek anthropology where heart and mind are separate. Emotions are more valued or thinking is more valued, depending on who you talk to, but the two are held to be distinctly different. This separation poses a problem for faith because faith requires heart and mind to be considered together.

While this subject is timely, it is not new. Theologian Jonathan Edwards (2009, 13), writing in 1746 about the effects of the Great Awakening, noted that both head and heart were necessarily involved in effective discipling. He coined the phraseholy affections to distinguish the marks of the work of the Spirit from other works and associated these holy affections directly with scripture.

More recently, Elliott (2009, 46-47) distinguishes two theories of emotions:  the cognitive theory and the non-cognitive theory. The cognitive theory of emotions argues that “reason and emotion are interdependent” while the non-cognitive theories promote the separation of reason and emotion. In other words, the cognitive theory states that we get emotional about the things that we strongly believe.

Elliott notes that the God of the Bible only gets angry on rare occasions when people have disobeyed the covenant or expressed a hardness of the heart, as in the case of Pharaoh (Exod 4:21). Our emotions are neither random nor unexplained because they are not mere physiology. Elliott (2009, 53-54) writes: “if the cognitive theory is correct, emotions become an integral part of our reason and our ethics” informing and reinforcing moral behavior.

Neglect of anthropology is perhaps the single, most important reason that the Christian faith has been hard to understand and accept in our time.

Neglect of Epistemology

The neglect of epistemology is closely related to the neglect of anthropology. Few people come to faith because of intellectual arguments (epistemology is the study of knowledge or how we know what we know), but many people who have come to faith for emotional reasons later fall away because their faith appears to lack substance. When heart and mind are not engaged together, the absence of one affects the durability of the other.

The anti-intellectualism of American culture appears like the great enigma of the postmodern age. The advances of technology that have led to the convenience of communication and the extension of life through new medical discoveries, yet the thought processes required to develop and sustain these technologies are known to a tiny number of people. Instead, youth culture, which focuses on hedonistic entertainments and moral laxity, appears parasitic relative to this great intellectual heritage.

Neglect of epistemology leaves people apprehensive of the faith that they have seen in others and makes it hard for them to understand the logic of faith and to accept the lifestyle changes required to join the Christian community.

Neglect of Ethics

The neglect of ethics is the problem that theological principles are in tension with one another and always have been, something that is so obvious that it cannot be overlooked and requires serious discernment. For example, how do you love a sinner who refuses to confess their sin and forces you to pay their consequences? How do you practice forgiveness? Ethics training may not answer the question, but it will help you frame it appropriately for further reflection and future action.

Ethics is never devoid of a context for acting out our faith, be it character formation within our own lives, being mentored within the community of faith, or learning to assume leadership. It is therefore useful to review case studies of each of these contexts both in scripture and in our present circumstances. If our spirituality is lived theology, then it is informed by our theology and, in turn, our life informs our theological reflection.

A special form of this neglect of ethics arises when people start to see the church as a holy huddle a kind of shelter from the storms of life, rather than as a team meeting of the faithful, searching together for answers in the midst of the struggles of life. This holy huddle can take the form of an entirely intellectualized faith or of a faith focused entirely on service to the neglect of the interior life. Either way, the hard tradeoffs implied in limited time, energy, and resources are overlooked and growth in discipleship remains frozen in time.

Neglect of ethics becomes obvious in the life of the church and community more widely when political views replace honest discernment and the focus on God melts away amidst senseless conflict.

Life in Tension

Considering all four of the questions taken from philosophy does not lead to a trouble-free Christian life, but it prevents the neglect of important aspects of our faith. Tension will always exist between to the life of the Christian and the culture that we find ourselves in. We need to accept this tension and learn to live with it because without tension our lives cannot be transformed into the image of Christ and we cannot be a witness to that truth.


Edwards, Jonathan. 2009. The Religious Affections (Orig Pub 1746). Vancouver:  Eremitical Press.

Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional.

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Kreeft Outlines Jesus’ Philosophy

Peter Kreeft. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend: Saint Augustine’s Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Every kid in Sunday school knows that if the pastor asks you a question, the answer is always Jesus. And so it is with philosophy (9).


In The Philosophy of JesusPeter Kreeft (3-5) observes that we are all philosophers—even Homer Simpson, even Jesus. If we are all philosophers and espouse a philosophy, then what philosophy do we embrace?Philosophy (philo-sophy) is taken from the Greek expression for love (philo) of wisdom (sophy). Kreeft (6) divides philosophy into four primary questions:

  1. What is? (metaphysic)
  2. How do we know what is real? (epistemology)
  3. Who are we? (philosophical anthropology)
  4. How should we be? (ethics)

Why is it that we use intimate words like espouse (to marry), embrace (to kiss), and love to describe our relationship with wisdom?

Background and Organization

Peter Kreeft[1]is a professor of philosophy at Boston College, a Catholic school. He structures his book in four chapters, one for each of the questions cited. These chapters are proceeded by an introduction in three parts and followed by a summary and indices. 

Four Philosophical Questions

Let me say a few words about these four questions. Note that Kreeft considers the ordering of these questions as important:

“The logical order of questions is this: we must first know something is real before we can know how we know it; and we must first know who we are before we can know what is good for us.”(8)

In my own writing, I found it helpful to reverse anthropology and epistemology in this ordering. Our relationship with God comes first as person to person before we begin to intellectualize it or wonder how to respond to it. Our anthropology also seriously affects how we deal with knowledge and wisdom, which tends to give anthropology higher priority. In this sense, I agree that ordering does matter.


Kreeft (10) starts his metaphysics of Jesus with the observation that he is a Jew. This is an interesting observation because throughout history Jesus’ ethnicity has been deliberately blurred to make him more acceptable to gentiles. More to the point, however, is that God chose to reveal specifically to the Israelite people (11), who later in the Bible became Judeans and known to the world as Jews. 

The distinctiveness of the Jews comes, in part, because no other ancient language other than Hebrew has the word, create. Only God can create out of nothing (13). Kreeft boldly proclaims that God can only be referred to as He because he impregnated non-being with being. The earth is Mother Earth, which is part of the created order that God stands apart from (14). The Hebrew God is transcendent, standing apart from time and space that are bound up in the created order.

If you think creation is a word game; you would be wrong. There are no paths up the mountain to God because he stands outside of the time and space in which we are bound. We cannot approach God metaphysically; he must approach us (51), which as Christians we believe he did in sending Jesus Christ. Creation is the reason that Jesus is the exclusive path to God. Obviously, lots more could be said about metaphysics here.


Kreeft focuses his discussion of epistemology on truth about being (47). He writes:

“What must we know? Only two things: who we are and who God is.”(50)

This is the person-to-person dialogue that I referred to earlier.

Kreeft (51) makes my earlier point about the importance of creation with these words:

“We can’t know God, ultimate Truth, by climbing any human tower, whether it is built of the babble of words or of bricks [Gen 11:1-11]. We can only know God if God comes down.”

God always must take the initiative in our dialogue with him (54). This is why Kreeft observes that no convincing fiction about Jesus has ever been written that credibly extends his wisdom (58). We can quote him; we cannot one up him.


Kreeft (69) observes:

“Know thyself, said Socrates, at the dawn of philosophy. But know thyself seems to be an unsolvable puzzle.”

Pope John Paul II observed: “Jesus alone shows man to himself.”(69) Kreeft writes:

“Christ is the answer to the question [puzzle]: What is the meaning of human life? Who are we meant to be? The answer is that we are destined to be little Christs.”(74)

The Bible says that we were created in the image of God (Gen 1:27) so Kreeft’s observation should come as no surprise to Christians.


What are we to do? Kreeft writes:

“There are really three moral questions, three basic parts to morality: how should we relate to each other, to ourselves, and to God?”(95)

The basic answer to every question in Kreeft’s philosophy is Jesus, not a perfect answer, but a perfect person (119).


Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Jesusis short, readable book that changed my life. I have spent the last six years since graduating from seminary writing about these four questions from philosophy as they pertain to Christian spirituality. I commend this book to you.



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Vaughn Argues a Clear Case for Writers

Lewis Vaughn, Writing PhilosophyLewis Vaughn. 2018. Writing Philosophy: A Student’s Guide to Reading and Writing Philosophy Essays. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As an author, my eyes are always open for good writing books, especial those addressing the needs of nonfiction writers. I am not alone in this interest in writing books. The single, most popular post on this blog in 2013 and 2014 featured a writing book, How to Write Short by Roy Peter Clark, of special interest to bloggers.


On the back cover of his book, Writing Philosophy, Lewis Vaughn out lines his objectives:

“[This book] is a concise, self-guided manual that covers how to read philosophy and the basics of argumentative essay writing.”

Never having taken a philosophy course, other than philosophy of science as a PhD candidate, I found both objectives instructive. If a philosophy essay is all about the quality of the premises and the conclusions that follow from them, then other departments ought to send their students over to the philosophy department to learn how to write because understanding good argument structure can improve most essays.


According to Google Books,[1]Lewis Vaughn is an independent author living in Amherst, New York. He writes in eight chapters divided into two parts:


  1. How to Read Philosophy
  2. How to Read an Argument
  3. Rules of Style and Content for Philosophical Writing
  4. Defending a Thesis in an Argumentative Essay
  5. Avoiding Fallacious Reasoning
  6. Using, Quoting, and Citing Sources


  1. Writing Effective Sentences
  2. Choosing the Right Words (v-vii)

These chapters are preceded by a preface and followed by four appendices.

Three aspects of this book proved most helpful to me: reading philosophy, how to read an argument, and avoiding fallacies. Let me focus on each in turn.

Reading Philosophy

Philosophy means the love of knowledge. Vaughn writes:

“[Philosophy] is concerned with the examination of beliefs of the most fundamental kind—beliefs that structure our lives, shape our worldviews, and underpin all academic disciplines.”(3)

This focus on argumentation is important so Vaughn offers some key definitions:

“In philosophy, an argument is a statement, or claim, coupled with other statements that are meant to support that statement. The statement being supported is the conclusion, and the statements support the conclusions are the premises.”(5)

He goes on to define the divisions of philosophy (6) as: metaphysics (the study of reality), axiology (the study of value, including ethics, which is moral value), epistemology (the study of knowledge), and logic (the study of correct reasoning).

A fundamental skill for philosophers is the ability to summarize or paraphrase an argument, outlining its premises and conclusions. He writes: “A summary must accurately capture a text’s main ideas in just a few words.”(15) This advice may sound trivial, but summarizing my own books often proves to be an anxiety-producing event.

How to Read an Argument

Vaughn notes that a good premise is either true or false, while a conclusion is a belief that you are trying to support (21-22). He notes that certain “indicator words” flag which is which in an argument. Indications of a conclusion are words like: “consequently, thus, therefore, it follows that, as a result, hence, so, which means that.” Indicators of a premise might be: “in view of the fact, because, due to the fact that, the reason being, assuming that, since, for, given that.”(26)

Vaughn offers interesting definitions of deductive and inductive reasoning, two typically confusing ideas. A dedicative argument offers logically conclusive for conclusions, while inductive arguments offer only probable support for conclusions. Because of the difference in the veracity of these arguments, good deductive arguments are considered valid while good inductive arguments are strong. (27-29) True premises make a deductive argument sound while true premises make an inductive argument cogent. (30)

Worth the price of admission is Vaughn’s treatment of valid and invalid argument forms, what we might describe as logical syllogisms. He outlines four valid forms and two invalid forms. (32-33)


 Affirming the Antecedents (modus ponens)

 If p, then q     (premise 1)

p                    (premise 2)

Therefore, q. (conclusion)

Denying the Consequent (modus tollens)

If p, then q           (premise 1)

Not q                   (premise 2)

Therefore, not p. (conclusion)

Hypothetical Syllogism

If p, then q                  (premise 1)

If q, then r                   (premise 2)

Therefore, if p, then r. (conclusion)

Reductio Ad Absurdum

 p                         (premise 1)

If p, then q          (premise 2)

Not q                   (premise 3)

Therefore, not p. (conclusion)


 Denying the Antecedent

If p, then q          (premise 1)

Not p                   (premise 2)

Therefore, not q. (conclusion)

Affirming the Consequent

If p, then q     (premise 1)

q                    (premise 2)

Therefore, p. (conclusion)

For valid premises, these forms lead to logical conclusions. Consequently, Vaughn advises students to memorize these forms so as to recognize them as they arise in arguments.

Avoiding Fallacies

Vaughn cites two common fallacies that bear repeating: the straw man argument and the ad hominem attack (appeal to the person). The straw man argument is an unfair characterization of an opponent’s argument designed to facilitate criticism while the ad hominem attack is to defeat an argument not by criticizing its weaknesses, but by attacking the person advancing the argument. (89) These fallacies are weak arguments that we hear daily in political discourse and in uncivil discussions.

Other weak arguments that Vaughn (90-98) cites are: appeal to popularity, appeal to tradition, the generic fallacy (attacking the source, not the premises), equivocation (unfair comparisons), appeal to ignorance, false dilemma (comparing two non-exclusive outcomes), begging the question (using a conclusion as a premise to support it), hasty generalizations (generalizing from too small a sample), slippery slope arguments, composition (generalizing from a part of a composite), division (taking a composite to generalize about a part)


Lewis Vaughn’s Writing Philosophy is a wonderful writing book that I wish that I had been given years ago. It is concise, helpful, and interesting. Writers in many fields and at many points in their career could benefit from his insights.




Clark, Roy Peter. 2013. How To Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.  New York:  Little, Brown, and Company.

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RSL Surveys and Argues Ethics, Part 1

Russ Shafer-Landau's The Fundamentals of EthicsRuss Shafer-Landau.[1] 2018. The Fundamentals of Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

How things get done has always been interesting to me. As a kid, when we traveled and spotted an interesting manufacturing plant along the highway, my dad would stop and we would inquire as to whether they offered plant tours. During my dissertation work I must have visited a dozen or more meat packing plants from Detroit to. Most people don’t know it, but economics (my first career) is a field closely related to ethics, its cousin in the philosophy department.


In his book, The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau (hereafter RSL) writes:

“In the pages to come, I present and evaluate a lot of arguments. These are the ones at the heart of morality, the ones that try to offer answers to the deepest questions of ethics. As we will see, no fundamental theory—about the good life, our moral duties, or the status of morality—has earned anything like unanimous support among philosophers.”(17-18)

While this might seem like the failure of philosophy, knowing the basic arguments and counterarguments is extremely useful. Think about how zoologists classify animals allows the zoologist to recognize species and subspecies almost immediately. In the same way, knowing the key questions in philosophy and the arguments pro and con for those questions allows one to quickly survey an entire field of inquiry because the same questions and arguments have floated around since antiquity, albeit in different contexts.


RSL teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He is a graduate of Brown University and received his doctorate at the University of Arizona. He is the founder and editor of the periodical Oxford Studies in Metaethics and the author of numerous books.[2]


RSL writes this textbook in twenty-one chapters divided into three parts, preceded by a preface and introduction and followed by references, suggestions for further reading, glossary, and index. The chapters are:


Part One: The Good Life

  1. Hedonism: Its Powerful Appeal
  2. Is Happiness All that Matters?
  3. Getting What You Want
  4. Problems for the Desire Theory

Part Two: Normative Ethics: Doing the Right Thing

  1. Morality and Religion
  2. Natural Law
  3. Psychological Egoism
  4. Ethical Egoism
  5. Consequentialism: Its Nature
  • Consequentialism: Its Difficulties
  • The Kantian Perspective: Fairness and Justice
  • The Kantian Perspective: Autonomy and Respect
  • The Social Contract Tradition: The Theory and Its Attractions
  • The Social Contract Tradition: Problems and Prospects
  • Ethical Pluralism and Absolute Moral Rules
  • Ethical Pluralism: Prima Facie Duties and Ethical Particularism
  • Virtue Ethics
  • Feminist Ethics

Part Three: Metaethics: The Status of Morality

  • Ethical Realism
  • Moral Nihilism
  • Eleven Arguments Against Moral Objectivity”(vii-xiv)

Part one focuses on what makes a good life or what RSL refers to as value theory. In part two he talks about normative ethics, who is in and out of our moral universe and the roles of virtue, self-interest, and justice. In part three, he discusses metaethics and the sources of moral authority (2). Clearly, RSL covers a lot of material in 342 pages plus front and back matter.


While skeptics argue that moral thinking is arbitrary, RSL lays out a list of parameters that guide any moral quest. These are not meant to be exhaustive:

  1. “Neither the law nor tradition is immune from moral criticism…
  2. Everyone is morally fallible…
  3. Friendship is valuable…
  4. We are not obligated to do the impossible…
  5. Children bear less moral responsibility than adults…
  6. Justices is a very important moral good…
  7. Deliberately hurting other people requires justification…
  8. Equals ought to be treated equally…
  9. Self-interest isn’t the only ethical consideration…
  10. Agony is bad…
  11. Might doesn’t make right…
  12. Free and informed requests prevent rights violations.”(6-7)

Poor beginnings can also be articulated. He writes: “A morality that celebrates genocide, torture, treachery, sadism, hostility, and slavery is…either no morality at all or a deeply failed one.”(7) Because we can all name cultures that embrace such practices, clearly not all cultures are created equal.

What is morality? RSL sees no widely agreed upon definition. (8) What is moral reasoning? RSL sees a set of reasons (premises) and a conclusion that they support. (9) The validity of an argument depends on how well the premises of an argument support its conclusion. (12)


In part one of this review, I have outlined the basic arguments that RSL present. In parts two and three, I will examine some of his more important arguments.

In this textbook,The Fundamentals of Ethics, Russ Shafer-Landau offers a taxonomy of ethical arguments covering a wide range of ethical philosophies. His writing is clear, concise, and interesting in the topics used as examples.




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Kreeft Enlightens Aquinas’ Summa

Peter Kreeft A Shorter SummaPeter Kreeft.[1]1993. A Shorter Summa: The Essential Philosophical Passages of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologia Edited and Explained. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In college back in the 1970s, I felt compelled to read the classics of the Christian faith. That effort led me to explore authors such as Augustine, Edwards, Lewis, Little, and so on. Aquinas capped my quest and brought it to an end: where do you start and how do you get past the first page? Aquinas proved incomprehensible and I soon abandoned my effort.

Peter Kreeft’s A Shorter Summa begins:

“This is a shortened version of Summa of the Summa, which in turn was a shortened version of the Summa Theologiae (Summa Theologica). The reason for the double shortening is pretty obvious: the original runs some 3,000 pages…The Summa is certainly the greatest, most ambitious, most rational book of theology ever written.” (ii)

Perhaps, I was not the first student intimidated by Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica!

Who is Peter Kreeft?

Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College, a Jesuit (Catholic) university, and author of over seventy-five books. He is a graduate of Calvin College (1959). His masters and doctorates are from Fordham University (1961, 1965). He also did post-graduate studies at Yale University. He was raised in the Reformed Church in America, but later became a Roman Catholic.[2]

Why Read Thomas Aquinas?

Kreeft believes that Aquinas is the greatest philosopher (Italian, 1225-1274) who ever lived and offers eight reasons:

  1. Aquinas told the truth, which is the mark of a philosopher—one who loves knowledge.
  2. Common sense. Aquinas’ ethics are in Kreeft’s view: “practical and plain and reasonable”
  3. Aquinas was someone that popes and kings wrote to for advice.
  4. Aquinas was someone who seems obscure at first but clearer with each reading.
  5. Aquinas strived for clarity and focused on things that the average person wonders about—God, man, life, death, good and evil.
  6. Kreeft writes: “Even non-Catholics must go to St. Thomas to understand Catholic theology and philosophy. You never understand a philosophy from its critics or dissenters.”
  7. Aquinas epitomized the medieval mind.
  8. Aquinas is a standard by which to highlight the modern era for all of its differences and weaknesses. (13-16)

At some point, I remember reading that while Augustine introduced the Christian world to Plato, in like manner Aquinas introduced Aristotle. While Plato focused on theoretical knowledge (transcendent), Aristotle focused on empirical knowledge revealed by the senses (immanent). Inasmuch as postmodern people have trouble with transcendence, the current focus on the immanent suggests that returning to Aquinas is especially important for postmoderns.

Postmoderns also seem to have trouble hearing each other’s perspectives, Aquinas respected his critiques and painstakingly argued both sides of a controversy in the Summa Theologicabefore offering his own conclusion.

More generally, Kreeft sees Aquinas as more of an encyclopedia than a textbook. (17) For those born after Wikipedia, an encyclopedia once provided an important resource that students would consult before striving to understand other resources.

Organization of the Summa

Kreeft outlines the Summa as a circle that begins and ends with God. The movements around the circle include:

God (at top)

  • His essence in terms of whether and how he exists and how he operates,
  • His three persons

Creation (left side)

Man (bottom)

Man’s return to God (Right side at bottom)

Christ—man’s way to return to God (right side further up)

Kreeft describes the Summa “not like information in a library, but like blood in a body.” He describes the Summa as written in a choppy style because arguments are divided up into bite-sized pieces. (18)

Organization of the Book

Kreeft sees his book as distinctive from other summaries of the Summa in four ways:

  1. He focuses on Aquinas’ own words.
  2. He relies on an older, literal Dominican translation.
  3. He focuses only on the Summa. and
  4. He includes numerous explanatory footnotes. (22)

He also writes for beginners in philosophy; leaves out arguments not interesting to modern discussion, and focuses on Aquinas’ chief arguments relevant to philosophy, not theology per se (ii).

Kreeft begins his book with a preface, introduction, and glossary, then writes his text in seven chapters:

  1. Methodology: Theology as a Science
  2. Proofs for the Existence of God
  3. The Nature of God
  4. Cosmology: Creation and Providence
  5. Anthropology: Body and Soul
  6. Epistemology and Psychology
  7. Ethics(contents)

Not trained in philosophy, I found the glossary most helpful.

For example, I particularly enjoyed his definitions of a:

“syllogism: (1) logical argument; (2) especially a deductive argument; (3) especially a certain deductive argument with three terms, two premises, and one conclusion.” (35)

Uncertain over the years about the third definition, I felt badly about using the first one!


Kreeft warns students to review their understanding of “basic, common sense logic”(19) and explains that Aquinas normally states his premises in a form capable of a yes-no answer. For example, in the first chapter on the Nature and Extent of Sacred Doctrine, he asks: “Whether, besides Philosophy, Any Further Doctrine is Required?”(39) He observes that the Summa is not so much a systematic theology, but a “summarized debate”(17).

Kreeft’s footnotes are worth their weight in gold. One footnote, for example, offers twenty-four arguments for God’s, starting with the ontological argument put forward by Anselm (56-58). Another gem highlights the three meanings of logos in Greek—intelligent being, intelligence, and communication—and how these three meanings inform the philosophical eras—metaphysics (ancient and medieval periods), epistemology (classical modern period), and language (contemporary period) (65-66).

Aquinas’ own arguments are priceless. For example, he argues that our happiness cannot be attributed to fame or glory because “for human knowledge is caused by the things known, whereas God’s knowledge is the cause of the things known.”(138)

Aquinas is also the source of a lot of wisdom that seems to float around today without an obvious source. For example, Aquinas argues that the four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, while the three theological virtues are faith, hope, and love, as taken from1 Corinthians 13:13 (153-155).


Peter Kreeft’s A Shorter Summa is a most helpful introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. For those of us exposed to Aquinas who never quite understood him, this is a wonderful little book. Philosophy and seminary students and working pastors will find this book interesting and useful. I wish that I had had this book back when I was in college.


 Kreeft, Peter (Editor). 1990. A Summa of the Summaby Thomas Aquinas. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.



Kreeft Enlightens Aquinas’ Summa

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Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

In his book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, James Smith (2006, 26) Describes post modernism as a kind of pluriform and variegated phenomena, an historical period after (post) modernism, heavily influenced by French philosophers, especially Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Michael Foucault.  Adding to the confusion, Smith observes that postmodernism does not make a clean break with modernism, but tends to intensify certain aspects of modernism, particularly notions of freedom (Smith 2006, 19-21, 26).

Smith starts with the intriguing premise that the basic ideas of these three postmodern philosophers have misunderstood. When properly understood, postmodern philosophy and the traditional teaching of the church remain compatible.  The collapse of the church in our lifetime can accordingly be seen to lay the groundwork for a revitalization of the church around traditional teaching—once purged of its modernistic thought patterns (Smith 2006,  22-23, 29).  This re-imaged traditional teaching he refers to as radical orthodoxy and has an incarnation focus which takes time, place, and space seriously and which affirms both the liturgy and the arts (Smith 2006, 127).

Jacques Derrida

Smith’s premise that these philosophers have been misunderstood because of weak bumper-sticker summaries of them. For example, Derrida’s misunderstood statement is: “there is nothing outside the text.” (Smith 2006, 36)  The idea that one can simply read a text, particularly an ancient text written in another language, and understand its meaning is to misunderstand the role of language, context, and interpretation. 

While often said to mean that the Bible cannot be read and understood by just anyone, Smith says that this is not what Derrida is saying. Derrida’s point is simply that all understanding of texts requires interpretation—the context and the interpretative community—which implies that there is no such thing as 

objective truth.  Interpretation is always required (Smith 2006, 38-40, 43).

Jean-François Lyotard

Smith also sees Lyotard’s idea of a meta-narrative as misunderstood in its bumper-sticker characterization. Postmodern critics have trouble with the meta-narrative or big story of scripture—creation, fall, redemption, and eschatology.  Smith disputes, however, that the scope of meta-narratives is Lyotard’s main concern.  Smith sees Lyotard’s main concern being the truth claims of modern use of meta-narratives—science is itself a meta-narrative but falsely and deceptively claims to be universal, objective, and demonstrable through reason alone. Smith writes:  “For the postmodern, every scientist is a believer.” Lyotard is perfectly okay with the idea of faith preceding reason, following Augustine  (Smith 2006, 62-72) and Anselm, who cites Isaiah 7:9.[1]

Michael Foucault

Foucault’s concern about institutional power structures is hard to reduce to a bumper-sticker characterization, in part, because he resists reductionism in his writing style and focuses on tediously pure description.  Smith sees Foucault preoccupied with disciplinary structures, but wonders what his real intentions are.  He talks about two readings of Foucault:  Foucault as Nietzschean and Foucault as a closet enlightenment liberal (Smith 2006, 96-99).  Smith (2006, 102) writes:

“What is wrong with all these disciplinary structures is not that they are bent on forming or molding human beings into something, but rather what they are aiming for in that process.”

Smith sees Foucault offering three lessons to the church: to see “how pervasive disciplinary formation is within our culture”; to identify which of these disciplines are “fundamentally inconsistent with…the message of the church”; and to “enact countermeasures, counter disciplines that will form us into the kinds of people that God calls us to be” (Smith 2006, 105-106).

Weakness in Modern Witness

Smith sees hope in the Derrida’s critique because the modern understanding of the Christian message is itself a distortion of traditional church teaching.  In attempting to frame the Christian message in ahistorical truth statements (God is love), the narrative tradition (God showed his love by sovereignly granting the exodus of the nation of Israel from Egypt) has been lost.  Because the Christian message is contextual in biblical accounts and is interpreted by the church, it meets Derrida’s primary concerns.  Consequently, according to Smith, the church must, however, abandon modern stance and language in order to thrive in the postmodern environment (Smith 2006, 54-58).

When exactly did the church relinquish its internal discipline and why?⁠[2]  Smith (2006, 107) sees communion, confession, foot washing, and economic redistribution as the kind of disciplines that need to be maintained.  A more normal reading of discipline might ask why the teaching of the church—church doctrine—is ignored and no dire consequences follow for those most engaged in the ignoring.


Davies, Brian and G.R. Evans [ed}. 2008. Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works. Oxford World Classics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Longfield, Bradley J. 1991. The Presbyterian Controversy:  Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Smith, James K.A.  2006.  Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic.


[1] In his Proslogion, Anselm writes: “I believe so that I may understand.” (Davies and Evans 2008, 87)

[2] Longfield (1991, 79-91) chronicles changes 1925-1936 in the Presbyterian Church from dropping the five fundamental of faith as ordination requirements in 1925 to changes at Princeton Theological Seminary serving to allow theological diversity within the denomination. These changes also effectively removed doctrinal basis for church discipline, accept in the case of gross error.


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