“THE DUMB OX"—that was the name given by his college classmates to the heavy, quiet, and serious lad from the Count of Aquino’s family. They might never have guessed that the Ox would produce eighteen huge volumes of theology, nor that the theological system he constructed would become an official theology of Catholicism.
The greatest theologian of the Middle Ages was born about 1225 to a wealthy and noble family. At age 5, the pudgy boy was sent to the school at the nearby monastery of Monte Cassino (the community founded by Benedict seven hundred years earlier). At age 14, Thomas went to the University of Naples, where his Dominican teacher so impressed him that Thomas decided he, too, would join the new, study-oriented Dominican order.
His family fiercely opposed the decision (apparently wanting him to become an influential and financially secure abbot or archbishop rather than take a friar’s vow of poverty). Thomas’s brothers kidnapped him and confined him for fifteen months; his family tempted him with a prostitute and an offer to buy him the post of Archbishop of Naples.
All attempts failed, and Thomas went to Paris, medieval Europe’s center of theological study. While there he fell under the spell of the famous teacher Albertus Magnus, also known as Albert the Great.
Thomas’s Educational Climate
In medieval Europe, the idea of “secular education” had not occurred to anyone. All learning took place under the eye of the church, and theology reigned supreme in the sciences. Yet Thomas lived in a time when nonChristian philosophers were stirring the minds of many thinkers. Aristotle the Greek, Averroes the Muslim, Maimonides the Jew—their (and others') works were being translated into Latin. Scholars were fascinated particularly by Aristotle, whose works had been unknown in Europe for centuries. He seemed to have explained the entire universe not by using Scripture, but simply by using his powers of observation and logic.
The new (or newly translated) philosophies’ emphasis on reason, however, threatened to undermine traditional Christian beliefs. Could an intellectual person who held to the reasonable new philosophies retain his or her faith?
Thomas avidly followed Aristotle. But, feeling more devoted to the church than to any brand of philosophy, Thomas determined to extract from Aristotle’s writings what was acceptable to Christianity.
At the beginning of his massive Summa Theologiae (which means “A summation of theological knowledge"), Thomas stated, “In sacred theology, all things are treated from the standpoint of God.” Thomas proceeded to distinguish between philosophy and theology, and between reason and revelation, though he emphasized that these did not contradict each other. Both are fountains of knowledge; both come from God.
Reason, said Thomas (following Aristotle), is based on sensory data—what we can see, feel, hear, smell, and touch. Revelation is based on more. While reason can lead us to believe in God—something that other theologians had already proposed—only revelation can show us God as he really is, the Triune God of the Bible.
Thomas’s theology is not easy reading. Few modern readers can sit through many pages of his intricate reasonings. Yet all can appreciate his attempt to harmonize revelation with reason. He showed that though revelation never contradicts reason—a conclusion many would dispute—reason alone is not sufficient to understand ourselves or God. Sense experience can explain some of nature’s workings, but heavenly knowledge alone, which every believer will experience after death, gives clear knowledge of God. And though a person apart from Christianity can practice certain “natural virtues,” only a believer can practice faith, hope, and love, the truly Christian virtues.
Thomas’ work, along with his many other writings (notably the Summa Contra Gentiles, a manual for missionaries to the Muslims, which also contains some lovely hymns), was not universally well received at first. Some of his statements were condemned after his death, though the condemnations were later reversed. But before long Thomas’ system gained preeminence. When Catholicism faced the rise of Protestantism in Europe, it used the works of Thomas in drafting the decrees of the Council of Trent (1545–63). Four years later, Thomas was declared a “doctor of the church.” And in 1879, the papal bull Aeterni Patris endorsed Thomism (Aquinas’s theology) as an authentic expression of doctrine and said it should be studied by all students of theology. Today, both Protestant and Catholic scholars draw upon his writings, and no one can claim to be a theologian unless he or she is familiar with his work.
Thomas Aquinas himself might not have approved. In spite of his stature as a teacher and author, he remained humble throughout his life. Consistently he turned down offers to be made bishop or abbot. More remarkable than this was an announcement he made three months before his death in 1274. He said, after apparently seeing a heavenly vision during a worship service, “All that I have hitherto written seems to me nothing but straw . . . compared to what has been revealed to me.” He gave up all theological writing, and so the Summa Theologiae was never actually completed. CH