In order to appreciate the contribution of Thomas Aquinas, #6 on our list of Top Ten Theologians, it’s important to place him within his world.
In the 1100’s AD a great threat arrived at the doorstep of Christianity. Islam was spreading throughout the known world. The tide of Islam brought with it many new ideas (read more about the spread of Islam in the Introduction to Anselm). A Muslim man named Averroes threatened to crumble Christianity.
Averroes rocked the western world beginning at the University of Paris. He did not wield a sword, instead he brought a new way of thinking that would challenge the way Christians had been thinking for a thousand years.
Have you ever heard a Christian use the terms “secular” and “sacred”? Did you know those concepts did not exactly come from the Bible? Thinking of the world in terms of dividing between what is spiritual and physical came mainly from the philosopher Plato. This view is known as dualism. There are two parts of the world. The seen and the unseen. The perfect and the imperfect. The holy and the ordinary. Creator and Creation. Faith and Reason.
From the very beginning of Christianity, most theologians, especially those living in the West, had grown accustomed to what was essentially a Platonic philosophy.1 Plato’s philosophy seemed to fit well with the Bible. The flesh is evil while the spirit is good. The earth is not as it should be, heaven is as it should be. Anselm, our #8 theologian, was so influential because he ultimately paved the way for Christians to fully embrace faith and reason. The two do not war against each other, we can fully believe and understand to the glory of God.
Averroes introduced to the West a competing view of reality which had been lost to all but those in the far East. His major bomb-shell on western Christianity was making Aristotle available to the Latin-speaking world. Aristotle was a student of Plato but did not agree with his mentor. Averroes, along with others, brought Aristotle to a new and hungry audience. Several professors in the Arts Faculty of Paris embraced the new philosophical ideas with enthusiasm.2
Theologians encountering Aristotle for the first time found his thoughts disturbing. Aristotle insisted on the independence between reason/philosophy and theology. Aristotle believed philosophy always trumped theology. If reason ever came into conflict with theology, reason would win. Theology has to accommodate reason.
Here’s a silly example. I am able to discover, through reason, that touching an oven is hurtful every time. I run an experiment where touching an oven ten times results in 10 wounds. Philosophically it is clear ovens and humans do not mix together. When I read the Bible, however, Daniel’s three friends are able to walk around in a super-heated oven. Does the Bible correct my reasoning? Are ovens now safe? Aristotle would say no. Reason wins every time.
Aristotle’s followers, for example, used reason to determine matter must be eternal. Since there is something there must have always been something. Something cannot come from nothing. The Bible, however, contradicts reason by saying God created everything ex nihilo (from nothing). Theologians, not Philosophers, have some explaining to do.
Thomas Aquinas became one of the greatest philosophers AND theologians to ever live. He stepped up to offer an amazing solution between Aristotelian philosophy and theology.
Aquinas was born into a unique family in 1224AD. His parents were wealthy aristocrats in the area of Naples, Italy. He lived in a unique environment. He lived in a castle. How would you like to grow up in a castle? Thomas really couldn’t tell you what it was like. He wasn’t able to grow up in the castle. His parents had a different plan. At the age of 5 he was sent to start ecclesiastical training. Yes, at 5 years old, his parents groomed him to be a successful church leader. The office of bishop or archbishop led to substantial power and wealth.
The Benedictines who were educating this promising boy sent him to Naples for his liberal arts education.3 While in Naples, Thomas was won over to the Dominican order of monks, instead of the Benedictine order. The Dominicans were passionate about teaching the Bible. Unlike the Benedictines, the Dominicans took a vow of poverty. Thomas’s family did not like his vow of poverty. It was social humiliation for a nobleman to become a monk. They envisioned great power and wealth for this budding theologian.
What did his family do? In 1244, at the age of 20, they kidnapped Thomas and locked him in the castle tower for over a year. They even brought by prostitutes to try to tempt him away from following the Dominican order of Christians. If he fell into temptation and eventually got married he would have to leave the Dominicans. His family even offered to buy him the post of Archbishop of Naples.4 Thomas ended up escaping from the castle tower and headed for the University of Paris. He would soon be learning from the epicenter of the new Aristotelian thinking.
Thomas learned from those who explained the entire universe, following Aristotle, not by using Scripture, but simply by using powers of observation and logic.5 The question of the age was, “Could an intellectual person who held to the reasonable new philosophies retain their faith?”
Many who knew Thomas in his early years failed to see the genius in him.6 People actually thought he was an idiot. He was so tall and obese he earned the nickname, “The Dumb Ox.” He was the object, not merely of mockery, but of pity.7 G.K. Chesterton writes:
St. Thomas was a huge heavy bull of a man, fat and slow and quiet; very mild and magnanimous but not very sociable; shy, even apart from the humility of holiness…He was so stolid that the scholars, in the schools which he attended regularly, thought he was a dunce. Indeed, he was the sort of schoolboy, not unknown, who would much rather be thought a dunce than have his own dreams invaded, by more active or animated dunces.8
It doesn’t appear to have bothered Aquinas that people thought he was an idiot. The old saying goes, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” Instead, Aquinas seemed to think, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open my mouth and make others feel like fools.” But slowly his intelligence broke through his silence, and the Dominican order acknowledged his intellectual gifts.9 Chesterton writes of his love for books and learning:
It was the outstanding fact about Thomas that he loved books and lived on books; that he lived the very life of the clerk or scholar in The Canterbury Tales, who would rather have a hundred books of Aristotle and his philosophy than any wealth the world could give him. When asked for what he thanked God most, he answered simply, “I have understood every page I ever read.”10
Aquinas went on to spend most of his life in the academic circles of Paris. He grew to become a famous professor. His introverted passion continued his whole life. According to one story:
His thoughts consumed him. He was dining with Louis IX of France (soon to be named “Saint Louis”), but while others engaged in conversation, he stared off into the distance lost in thought. Suddenly, he slammed down his fist on the table and exclaimed, “Ah! There’s an argument that will destroy the Manichees!”11
Aquinas wrote a prolific amount of works. His two most famous are Summa Contra Gentiles (A Summary Against the Gentiles) and Summa Theologica (A Summary of Theology).
He died in 1274, when he had barely turned just fifty years old.
As Christians were running away from Aristotle, Aquinas ran toward him. He explored the possibility that the new philosophy offered for a better understanding of the Christian faith. It made sense to break the world into philosophy and theology.
Philosophy operates on the basis of objective principles which can be known apart from any needed revelation from God. A great philosopher does not seek to prove what the mind cannot understand. Truth is discovered by a well-reasoned method.
The theologian, on the other hand, does set out from the basis of revealed truths which cannot be known by reason alone. This does not mean, according to Aquinas, that theological doctrines are less reliable. On the contrary, revealed data are always more certain than those of reason, which may have error.12
Aquinas writes volumes showing the limits of philosophy. He is not seeking to destroy philosophy. He simply acknowledges its limits. A philosopher who claims to prove the eternity of the world, and a philosopher who claims to prove its creation out of nothing, are both poor philosophers, for they ignore the limits of reason.13
It is in revealed theology, Aquinas writes, where mankind receives information about God and the world upon which we could not attain solely through reason. He writes, “In order that men might have knowledge of God, free of doubt and uncertainty it was necessary for divine truth to be delivered to them by way of faith, being told to them as it were, by God himself who cannot lie.“14
Aquinas realizes if we are to depend fully on our five senses to understand the universe then we would need to all be excellent scientists. If my understanding of God rests on my scientific method, an accurate understanding of God would be based on intelligence.
Aquinas beautifully articulates why the existence of God is a revealed theological truth. No one can plead lack of intelligence, even the most ignorant person can accept it on the basis of revealed truth from a trustworthy God. But this does not mean that the existence of God is a truth beyond the reach of reason. In this case, reason can prove what faith accepts. Therefore, the existence of God is a proper subject for both philosophy and theology, although each arrives at it following its own method.15
For example, someone looking at nature could tell by their senses that an intelligent creator exists. But that person would have no idea whether the creator was good or if he might work in history. Philosophy and Theology are both needed.
Theologians like Anselm, whose thinking more aligned to Plato, did not trust the senses. Anselm wrote volumes combining pure reasoned ideas with faith. Aquinas took the opposite approach. He trusted the senses. He started with information known from the senses to learn as much about the universe as possible. When reason could take him no further, revelation would fill in the rest of the gaps.
Noted Boston College philosopher Peter Kreeft regards Thomas Aquinas as the greatest philosopher to have ever lived.16 He gives eight reasons to support the claim: truth, common sense, practicality, clarity, profundity, orthodoxy, medievalism, and modernity.
Many people of his day considered Aristotle a threat to the faith. The reading and teaching of Aristotelianism was often forbidden. Therefore, Aquinas’s sympathetic writings were at first seen by many as a threat to Christianity.
The old Platonic bias had helped Christianity through many early struggles with paganism, for it spoke of an invisible Supreme Being, of a higher world that senses cannot perceive, and of an immortal soul. Yet, Platonism also had its dangers. It was easy for Christians to undervalue the world which God had created. It was also possible to devalue the incarnation of Christ, for Platonism was not interested in temporary realities. There was a danger that theologians would pay less attention to Jesus Christ as a historical figure, and more to the eternal Word of God.17
Over time Aquinas’s influence grew. Aquinas’s work was of great significance for the further development of theology. He influenced the history of Christianity by joining traditional doctrine with the new philosophical outlook. He used Aristotle to bring balance back from too much Platonic bias.
Aquinas did not reconcile Christ to Aristotle, he reconciled Aristotle to Christ.18
Apart from his struggles with eating, Aquinas seemed to live a godly life. He believed only those following Christ were truly able to live virtuous lives.
For several hundred years, as Chesterton claims, Aquinas had the ability to levitate. This claim is additionally interesting when considering his large size. Chesterton writes, “His experiences included well-attested cases of levitation in ecstasy; and the Blessed Virgin appeared to him, comforting him with the welcome news that he would never be a Bishop.” Levitation and direct conversation with Mary are not foibles, but interesting tidbits we are left to only ponder.
Protestants will especially struggle with Aquinas’s view of Purgatory. He provided one of the most scholarly justifications for purgatory which the Roman Catholic church later developed into their official doctrine. Aquinas writes:
It does at times happen that such purification is not entirely perfected in this life; one remains a debtor for the punishment, whether by reason of some negligence, or business, or even because a man is overtaken by death. Nevertheless, he is not entirely cut off from his reward…They must, then, be purged after this life before they achieve the final reward…And this is the reason we hold that there is a purgatory.19
While the Roman Catholic church adopted Aquinas’s teaching on purgatory, the reformers rejected it, believing it undermined the gospel of salvation as a free gift.
Aquinas’s Effect on Us
Thomas Aquinas is important for us today in several areas.20 First, he brought together science and faith. As our world continues to see biblical faith as the inferior neighbor to science, Aquinas mastered both. Aquinas was the culmination of the greatest MIT scholar and the greatest orthodox theologian. He did not do it by separating science and faith but became great through bringing them both together.
Second, Aquinas was able to be clear and profound. We oftentimes think we have to jettison depth for the sake of clarity. All people need to know the depths of God through clear communication. We do not hold back God’s revelation for the sake of thinking it is beyond the comprehension of God’s people. It is precisely for the masses God gave His revelation. Aquinas joined the Dominicans in forsaking fame and wealth in order to simply teach people the revelation of God. A refreshing example for today.
Third, Aquinas is full of common sense yet able to match anyone with technical sophistication. It is easy for us to prefer one over the other. “I preach in a way that people can practically apply the Bible for today.” “I preach the Word of God with technical sophistication with no need to mention application, the Spirit will apply it for me.” Aquinas reminds us of the need to know the “what” and the “how.”
Finally, Aquinas shows us how to have a “big picture” united view of God’s universe, and then also how to carefully sort out all the smaller distinctions. He majors on the majors but does not neglect the minor aspects of the faith. Theology is not an ivory tower exercise for Aquinas. The focus of his thought is His living God. He maintains the focus on His God while also pondering all the smaller details. He writes thousands of pages in order to be as exhaustive as He can of what God has communicated to us through our 5 senses and through His Word.
What do you think of Thomas Aquinas? Join the conversation by commenting below. We now move into the final 5 of our Top Ten Theologians!
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