10 Things You should Know about Thomas Aquinas
We Protestants often fail to take note of the unique and sometimes profitable contributions of Roman Catholic theologians of the past. So today we look at 10 things we should know about Thomas Aquinas.
(1) Thomas Aquinas was born at Roccasecca in Italy. His father was Count Landulf of Aquino (thus the name Aquinas). He joined the Dominican order of monks in 1242 against his family’s wishes. His father sent his brothers to kidnap him in an attempt to “deprogram” the young man. They even tried, unsuccessfully, to lure him into sin with a prostitute, thinking that he would then regard himself as unfit for the ministry! Aquinas was held captive by his family for two years. Upon his release he immediately returned to the order, and began his studies at the university in Paris.
(2) Aquinas spent a dozen years teaching in Italy until he was recalled to Paris in 1269. He encountered opposition there and in 1272 was sent to Naples to establish a Dominican school. He died two years later on March 7, 1274, not yet fifty years old.
(3) It is said that shortly after his death, miracles began to occur near the place where his body was laid. Monks at the Cistercian abbey at Fosanova, where Thomas was buried, feared that some might steal the body. They exhumed the corpse and cut off its head, placing the latter in a secret corner of the chapel. Mutilations continued for almost fifty years until all that remained were the bones. These were finally moved to the Dominican monastery at Toulouse where they remain to this day.
(4) Aquinas’s teacher, Albert Magnus (Albert the Great) is supposed to have said in class: “We call this lad a dumb ox, but I tell you that the whole world is going to hear his bellowing.” The nickname (“dumb ox”) stayed with him throughout life.
(5) His two most notable works are the multivolume Summa contra Gentiles (a defense of Christianity against Muslim scholars in Spain and North Africa) and Summa Theologica. The latter has been described by Peter Kreeft as “certainly the greatest, most ambitious, most rational book of theology ever written.”
(6) Aquinas is known for many things (his theology is typically referred to as Thomism), chief among which is his doctrine of natural theology, according to which rudimentary knowledge about God and the human soul is attainable by reason apart from any special, gracious, supernatural or revelatory activity of God. Thus even a non-Christian (such as Aristotle) could follow a purely natural path to the knowledge of God. However, when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity or the incarnation or the nature of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice or the efficacy of the sacraments, we are dependent on divine revelation.
(7) Aquinas appealed to the concept of analogy as the way of knowing God. Two words are said to be univocal if they are used in an identical sense. In the assertions, “Hillary Clinton is the Democratic candidate for President” and “Donald Trump is the Republican candidate” the word “candidate” is used in the same sense, i.e., univocally. Two words are said to be equivocal if they are used in an entirely different sense. In the assertions, “That animal is a rat” and “That man is a rat” the word “rat” is used in two different senses, i.e., equivocally. Two words are used analogically if their respective meanings are in some sense both similar and different. In the two sentences, “My home is in Chicago” and “A gopher’s home is underground” the word “home” is partly the same in both and partly different. “According to Thomas, no words that humans apply to God can be used in a univocal sense. While God is transcendent and infinite, the categories by means of which humans attempt to describe him are drawn from our human experience of the imperfect world” (Ronald Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions [Zondervan] 178). Therefore, according to Thomas, whatever words we use to describe God are, at best, analogically true of him.
(8) Thomas advocated what has come to be known as the cosmological argument for the existence of God, according to which one may argue from the existence of the world to the existence of an uncaused, First Cause, namely, God. Related to this is the teleological argument, according to which one may argue from order and design in the world to the existence of an Orderer or Designer.
(9) Aquinas was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint in 1323 and given the title Angelic Doctor. Pope Pius V gave him the title Universal Doctor of the Church in 1567 during the Council of Trent (during the council a copy of the Summa Theologica was placed on the altar “in second place only to the Bible” [Kreeft, A Shorter Summa, 15]). Pope Leo XIII made Aquinas’s theology the norm for Catholic theology in his encyclical letter of 1879 called Aeterni Patris (in it he exhorted all Catholic teachers to “restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas . . . and let them clearly point out its solidity and excellence above all other teaching”).
(10) Lest one regard Thomas as a coldly intellectual theologian, devoid of godly passion, consider the story told of him by one young man. During his final years at Naples, Thomas was working on the conclusion of the Summa (which he never concluded). A young man entered the room to find Thomas deep in prayer, allegedly floating above the ground (!). A voice was heard coming from the crucifix which Thomas held in hand: “Thomas, you have written well of me. What reward can I give you for all your labors?” To which Thomas replied: “Nothing, Lord. Nothing, but You.” Sometime later, on Dec. 6th, 1273, he had an experience during Mass that so profoundly affected him that he wrote nothing more. When urged by his friends to complete the Summa, he replied: “I cannot, for compared with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me [evidently, during the Mass], everything I have written seems like straw.”