Devotions in Church History: Thomas Aquinas
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The Dumb Ox None Could Silence.
Philippians 4:8–Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.
They locked him in a room with a hooker. His family locked him in the room in an effort to break his will and diminish his resolve. They thought he was throwing away his life by choosing the Lord’s service. Thomas, the stout son of the Count of Aquino, remained faithful. He thought quickly and found a brand in the fireplace. One end was ablaze while the other was cool enough to hold. Soon the seductress was screaming for her life, pounding the door, and asking for deliverance from the crazed future monk. He had passed his test.
Thomas Aquinas spent most of the rest of his life in study. His life, career, and intellectual output are inseparably linked to the history and culture of Europe in the High Middle Ages. During this time, Europe was rebuilding after centuries of paltry artistic and intellectual activity. Around AD 1000 the population grew, cities and trade flourished again, majestic Gothic cathedrals were erected, and universities became the center of learning. The chief subject of study in the Medieval University was Theology. The chief theologian of the age was Thomas Aquinas.
The Education of a Saint
He studied in the newly established Universities of Paris and Cologne under the leading scholar of his day, Albert the Great. Albert and Thomas both were unwilling to retreat into impractical theological speculation. Rather, they sought a system of thinking that made sense out of all things in the world–the scientific as well as the religious, reason as well as faith. In school, Thomas was quiet. His peers nicknamed him the “dumb ox.” Albert, however, was savvy enough to realize that Thomas was a unique talent.
In this time, Latin was the language of the church world and of scholarship. This made it convenient for the young friar and scholar to thrive in several different cities of Europe before settling down for most of his career teaching at the University of Paris. There he was made a Doctor of Theology. At Paris, he continued his desire to unify Christian thought and reject the dichotomy between faith and reason. As a professor, he wrote prolifically. His most famous works are his longer tomes, Summa Theologiae and Summa Contra Gentiles. He wrote the latter to aid potential Christian missionaries to discuss Christianity in the Muslim world.
Contentment to Truth
Under the influence of a liberal Spanish Muslim scholar, Ibn-Rushd, many Europeans were willing to accept the idea that something could be true scientifically or rationally, but contrary to divine revelation. They called this proposition “double truth.” For Thomas Aquinas, this was not only logically absurd but carried the potential to undercut the Christian faith.
Thomas staunchly held to the idea that “All truth is God’s truth.” That is to say, something that is true is absolutely true and is true because it corresponds to the reality established by God. A pre-Christian philosopher or a false religious teacher could arrive at some truth independently of Divine revelation. These conclusions would never contradict revelation, but would only show the veracity of revealed truth. Simply put, Thomas was not afraid of ideas from outside the Christian faith. The truth of God could hold its own against any threat. And any truth from the outside was to be most welcomed by the faithful as long as it was indeed true.
Faith and Reason
We see Thomas’s commitment to truth, as opposed to relativism, in a myriad of methods. First are his arguments for the Existence of God. Often known as the “5 ways” of proving the existence of God, Thomas roots his argument in the same Aristotelian logic that his philosophical opponent, Ibn-Rushd, used a century before. Thomas, however, used this logic to arrive at different conclusions. For Thomas Aquinas, the existence of God was not just a religious truth, but an eternal truth and a truth for everyone regardless of their acceptance of it.
The Cosmological Argument asserts that all things that are contingent (like our existence) are contingent on something. Eventually, there must be something that is not contingent, something on which all things depend. In a similar way, Thomas made a teleological argument or the argument from design. From all observable data, this world and our beings appear to be designed, therefore there must be a designer behind the design. In these ways, Thomas attempted to show that the existence of God was not just something for the religious to blindly believe, but for all to accept as a fact. God is not just true for some, but not for others. He is.
Nature and Grace
Along with bringing together faith and reason, Thomas sought to unify the concepts of nature and grace. For many theologians the world of the Divine, the world of the spiritual, the world of grace was distinct from the world we inhabit in our normal lives. They profoundly divided the secular and the sacred. Thomas saw the incarnation of Christ and the sacramental table as the union of the divine and the natural.
The world of grace now infuses the world of nature. God’s presence is available to us in our world. While this concept fundamentally undergirds the doctrine of transubstantiation, specifically, and sacramentalism, in general, the Thomist linking of nature and grace is a weighty theological concept that has inspired so much of the great art and literature of the western world. The Christian mind, such as that of Flannery O’Connor, that is able to see nature as a theater for God’s grace is unbridled in its creativity.
Aside from these theological arguments, Thomas Aquinas contributed significantly to the European concept of law, particularly the idea of natural law. Thomas wisely understood that there were universal moral principles behind human existence. Human laws are humanity’s attempt to reflect a greater universal law that lies behind it. A legal system establishes that murder is illegal not simply because it is the arbitrary will of a king or congress, but because this concept reflects a greater law, the law of human nature, or natural law. Therefore, in Thomas’ understanding societies or sovereigns do not decide morality when they legislate, they only reflect the greater natural law.
This natural law is, of course, based on the character of the Creator. This concept is the philosophical backbone behind so many of our current, Western ideas of government. Natural law theory is the basis of Locke’s concept of the Social Contract. It is the very principle by which Absolutist monarchs were defied. It is the basis of American Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Legacy and Prayer
Many debate his conclusions today. Most modern thinkers desire to drive a wedge between faith and reason. Philosophers frequently debate the logic of his proofs of the existence of God. Protestant theologians often refute the sacramentalism found in his cooperation of grace and nature. Political theorists, moreover, discuss and disagree over the validity of natural law. Few, however, can discount his ideas without deep consideration. Thomas is still a heavyweight. While dead for nearly 800 years, his voice speaks in nearly every academic discipline. The Dumb Ox will not be silenced.
Father of all knowledge, wisdom, and truth. Teach us to think deeply, meditate on your works, and marvel at your person. We thank you for the Christ-saturated ideas of your disciples that have shaped this world for the better. May we likewise soak our minds in the person of Christ so that we can better our world. Knowing that you are Lord over this world, we pray that your will be done on earth as in heaven.
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5 thoughts on “Devotions in Church History: Thomas Aquinas”
Excellent article, David. Thank you for this labor of love. Are some of these articles going to be in your book, but in a more simplified version?
Somewhat, I wrote the book for children first and then I went back and wrote these. The devotions are all sort of survey level. Both the future book and the devotions present the challenge of taking very complicated things and bringing them down to a digestible level. In this case, the level of a thousand word blog post. In the case of the book, the level of an 8 year old.
My thought is that I am pretty good at doing that sort of thing because I do it for high school students every day. Anyway, that is what I’m trying to do.
The most fascinating one yet! It’s amazing how much of the good in our culture, society, and belief system is, in large part, due to Aquinas.
A little late, but can you do one on Saint Augustine?
Bob, I should. Hopefully I will at some point. Like Aquinas, it would be hard to boil it down to about 1000 words. I wrote 5 a this point. I tried to do 5 different eras of Church History and choose people that most protestants don’t know enough about. This is why I didn’t do Augustine. Thanks for reading!