Notes #6– Thomas Aquinas

Notes #6– Thomas Aquinas

John Wiers PhD 2020


  1. About 1225-1274

2, The greatest of the “scholastic” theologians.  This is connected with the rise of the new universities in the 12-13th centuries in Europe.  While a devout churchman, Thomas was also clearly an academician.

3. He is also considered  the culmination of medieval theology.

4. Reformed theologian, John Frame, says he was also “one of the 3 or 4 most influential philosophers of all time.

3. Also the “official” theologian of the Roman Catholic church

a. He was canonized in 1326.  The pope who canonized him said every question he answered was a miracle.

B. His theology was made the official theology of the RC church in stages–  finally in 1879 when the Papal Encyclical Aeterni Patri proscribed that his works should be taught in all RC schools.

C. It is said that his works were laid on the altar of the church when the RC church met in Trent to issue their rebuttal to the Protestant Reformation

D. He was given the title: The Doctor Angelicus.

E. To disagree openly with him as a RC theologian opens one up to the possibility of censure from the Vatican.

4.  His work is also one of the greatest syntheses of Theology and Philosophy and he is of as much interest to professional philosophers as theologians.

5.  His style is clear, but somewhat pedantic.  It consists of answering questions and comparing them to the received tradition: scripture and the Church Fathers, especially Augustine, and the claims of philosophy, especially the philosophy of Aristotle, whom he never calls by name, but simply calls The Philosopher.

  1. His life
    1. He was born in the southern Italian town of Roccasecca, near Aquino, the youngest of 8 children of an Italian nobleman of Lombard stock. However, the family seems to have been in decline

B.  He was a witty youth and was said to have constantly asked “What is God?”

C.  A large youth, his family wanted him to pursue a church career, so they sent him off to the school the monastery of Monte Casino– where Benedict established the western form of communal monasticism.  Many have believed that his family hoped he would one day become abbot and enhance the family’s social prestige.

D.  Due to some political disruptions, he transferred to the new University of Naples in 1239, where he came into contact with the relatively new Dominican order of mendicant monks.–cf. Clair Davis’s description of the difference between Francis and Dominic:  Francis preached to the birds. Dominic had his studies interrupted by a bird.  He caught it, killed it, cooked it and ate it.

D.  His family considered the Dominicans a cult and had him kidnapped and held under house arrest for over a year, seeking to dissuade him.  When they failed, they sent a scantily clad beautiful prostitute to seduce him, hoping that this would make him too tainted to be accepted by the Dominicans.  He supposedly grabbed a firebrand and shook it at the prostitute, making the sign of the cross and she ran away, terrified.

E. His family finally allowed him to join the Dominicans and he went to Paris where he studied with the reknowned Dominican theologian, Albert the Great, following him to the University of Cologne when he moved.

F.  He moved rapidly though his academic studies, finishing his doctorate while still too young and needing a special dispensation to teach.

G. While Albert recognized his great academic abilities, his young colleagues had dubbed him the “Dumb Ox” due to his large frame.  Albert was reputed to have said of him: “You can call him a dumb ox. I tell you this dumb ox shall bellow so loud that his bellowings will fill the world.”

H. He returned to Paris, first lecturing on the Bible and the Sentences of Peter Lombard, the standard theology text of the time that was mostly made up of quotes from the church fathers, especially Augustine.  His own interpretive method emphasized the literal sense of the Bible.  Some have argued that very few theologians were as knowledgeable about both Scripture and tradition as he was.

I. While at Paris he became very involved with the debates over the compatibility of Aristotle’s philosophy and the Christian faith that was raging there and reconciling the 2 became a major life goal.

J. He returned to Italy and taught at the University of Naples for a time, went back to Paris and then back to Italy, where he wrote most of his famous Summa Theologica, his major work of theology, but never completed it.  It was already 3,000 pages long.

K. He had some sort of experience while celebrating Mass and quit writing, even getting rid of his writing equipment.  He is reported to have said: “All that I have written appears to be as much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.”  No one is sure exactly what he meant.  Some have suggested a mystical vision; others a brain hemorrhage.

L. On the way to the 2nd Council of Lyons, he hit his head on a tree branch, was injured and never really recovered.  He died a few miles from his birthplace.

M.  His teachings were not accepted by many at first, in spite of the fact that he eventually became the most revered theologian among RCs.

N. He was noted for his intense powers of concentration and often kept more than one secretary busy.

O. He once spaced off while eating with the king of France, Louis IX, and suddenly jumped up, calling for his secretary to take down dictation because he has solved a theological problem.  He apologized to the king, saying he had believed that he was back in his study.

P. The Cistercian monastery where he died claimed that the abbot was cured of blindness when he touched his dead body and were afraid that the Dominicans would steal it, so it was dismembered– his hand was sent to his sister and one finger was said to have traveled all over Europe.

Q. When he was canonized in the 14th century his corpse was reduced to a pile of bones that eventually ended up in 1974 in the Dominican church in Toulouse, France.

  1. His theology in its context
    1. The key issue that he worked with followed in the footsteps of Anselm in working with the relationship between faith and reason, but his method was entirely different.
  • The context was key.  Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher whose work had essentially been lost, had been rediscovered by Christian thinkers.  A few Greek speaking Nestorian scholars had salvaged texts of Aristotle, but they were unknown until Muslim scholars such as Avicenna and Averroes worked with Arabic translations as did the Spanish Jewish thinker, Maimonides.
  • For TA, Aristotle was both an authority and a problem.

D. Aristotle was a wide ranging scholar with a different philosophical method than the dominant Platonism.  Platonism was more intuitive, while Aristotle worked more with empirical data.

E. Some of Aristotle’s conclusions– such as the eternality of the universe– were in opposition to the Christian faith, leading to vigorous debates, especially in Paris, where some radical Aristotelians argued for a “dual truth” approach.  Things could be true in one realm, but false in another.

F. Thomas saw it as his life- goal to reconcile the 2, since he believed that Aristotle was correct in most areas and he used the insights from Aristotle to build a grand synthesis of theology and philosophy.

IV. TA’s method

  1. He divided all of reality into 2 realms: that of nature and that of grace.  Nature was that which could be discovered through natural reasoning processes and grace required revelation. The upper level was superior and sometimes must veto the lower level.

Grace, Trinity, Incarnation, Salvation, Faith– all requiring supernatural revelation


Nature– revelation and knowledge from created things, reason, God’s existence and many of his attributes

  • One of his key themes is that grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.
  • For TA, he, in classic Aristotelian approach, moved from the data, in the realm of nature, primarily sense data, and then brought in  the realm of grace, the data of scripture and the received tradition of the church, to his final conclusions.
  • He believed that this was superior than the more intuitional approach of the Platonic influenced method of Augustine and Anselm.
  • In the realm of Nature, he developed a fairly elaborate “natural theology” and believed that we could say much about God just using our human reasoning.  This was a bit different than Augustine and Anselm’s faith seeking understanding and most theologians in the Reformed tradition who follow a more presuppositional and revelational approach to theology have been quite critical.
  • His method is to state the question– sometimes they could be obscure to us today — give the answer of the received tradition, citing authorities– sometimes scripture, but often Augustine’s summary of scriptural teaching– and then “the Philosopher”, always seeking to reconcile the 2– he admitted he wasn’t always successful.  He would handle objections and work the topic until he believed no more objections could be raised to the final synthesis of all the data.
  • He applied this method to many of the themes of Christian theology and philosophy.  What he is most noted for are his 5 ways to prove the existence of God and his application to the sacramental system of the church.
  • He worked heavily with the categories of causality, he picked up from Aristotle and spoke of first causes, efficient causes, secondary causes, etc.
  • For example he defined faith as an act of the will moved to assent by the promise of a reward.  God’s grace is the efficient primary cause of our faith, but it becomes the meritorious cause of justification when formed by love.  Yet he was insistent that the first step in salvation was totally of grace.
  1. He asked some questions that seem very odd to us today:
    1. Is there any rivalry between guardian angels as to who has the best charge?
    1. Are demons as affected by the planets are humans are?
    1. Is the soul in each part of the body?
    1. Should Christ have been born in winter?
    1. Into which hell did Christ descend and did he take his body with him?
    1. Will we be resurrected with our hair and nails?
    1. Will we all be males or transparent?
  1. He actually devotes more space to angels than to the Trinity.

III. The 5 ways

  1. This is actually a very short section of the Summa Theologica— less than 3 pages in most editions– and some have suggested that TA wasn’t all that impressed with his arguments.

B. Yet they are part of the standard philosophical discussions about proving the existence of God.

C. He rather quickly dismisses Anselm’s Ontological Argument and doesn’t mention the Moral Argument at all.

D. These are not really unique to TA, but versions of them have been found in Aristotle and the Islamic Aristotelian philosophers.

E. 1st Argument– from Motion

  1. Motion in this world requires that there be a first mover.  He is working with the Aristotelian distinction between actuality and potentiality.
  • Since there must  be a 1st mover and God, who is pure actuality and contains no potentiality,  He must be the Prime Mover.

F. 2nd argument

  1. From causation
  2. There must be a first efficient cause.

G. 3rd argument

  1. Generally thought to be the most powerful– the argument from finitude– finite things are always dependent and thus we need an infinite source of existence to explain them.
  2. Aristotle had argued that the world was eternal and TA argued that he believed in creation ex nihilo from revelation, still he argued on Aristotle’s own logic it led to an infinite regress.
  3. In essence he was arguing from possibility to necessity.
  4. Some have said that it could be compared to a lengthy chain of dominoes.

H. 4th argument– from gradations of being– there must be a perfect being that all other being derives from– there are similarities to Anslem here.

I. 5th argument– teleological

  1. All things appear to be designed.
  2. Thus there must be a designer.

J. Some have argued that these are variations of the same theme and, especially since Kant’s critique they have been questioned as to their strength, but RC theologians and even some secular philosophers find aspects of them compelling.

K.  Some have argued that they actually don’t prove the Christian God, but only a god limited to each area and they don’t actually need to be the same God.

L. Some have said that his argument from design would really require us to be omniscient to see the design.

M.  Most presuppositionalists say that if you presupposed the Christian God, they are valid, but they fall short of “proof” and this “natural theology” was not exactly what Paul had in mind in Romans 1:20, which doesn’t seem to include the sophisticated logical reasoning of TA, but seems to be more intuitive knowledge.

N. Even some RC’s during his time were skeptical of his method.  Cf. the title of R Olson’s fictitious conversation between TA and Francis of Assisi: “Medieval Scholastic Philosopher/Theologian TA and Tree Hugger Francis of Assisi on how to know God.”

IV. TA’s formulation of religious language

  1. While this is not explicitly dependent on his Aristotelianism, it is compatible with it.
  • TA argued that our language about God is derived from our experience as embodied finite creatures.  Many have said that his view of religious language is not based on speculation, but on taking creation seriously.
  • Since God is infinite and uncreated, our language about him can’t describe “as he actually is” but only by way of analogy.
  • Univocal language, for example, would say that when we say God is good, we have a standard of goodness to compare God to that we understand that God completely adheres to.  Yet it would require us to actually be divine to understand and explain that.
  • Equivocal language would mean that when we say that God is good, there is no relationship between the meaning of goodness and what God is when we say he is God.
  • TA rejected both and said that when we say that God is good, we mean that there is an analogy between what we mean by goodness and that God is good.  We know from our human experience what we mean by goodness and by analogy we can apply that to God.
  • In some form or another most orthodox theologians have adopted some form of this, although some confessional Protestants have been critical of TA’s exact formulation and sought to disconnect it from his Aristotelian roots and ground it in our creation in the image of God and thus since we are analogies of God ourselves, it is proper to speak of our language of God as analogies.
  • Like TA, most orthodox theologians have stressed that God is ultimately incomprehensible in his being and thus our knowledge of him must be different.  This actually broke out in a debate in my own denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, between the followers of Cornelius Van Til, who argued that our knowledge of God is always qualitatively different from God’s since he is incomprehensible, and the followers of Gordon Clark who argued that our knowledge is only quantitatively different from God– i.e. he knows everything, while we only know some things.
  • The followers of C Van Til were generally seen to have won the debate and I believe that to be true.

V. TA’s application of his method to the doctrine of salvation

  1. TA is working in a context in which the whole sacramental system has expanded greatly since Augustine and even since Anselm. In fact he set in place the categories that would become “official” RC doctrine at the Council of Trent.
  • The Lord’s Supper had already developed into a clear doctrine of transubstantiation, in which the blessings of the elements was seen as changing them into the literal body and blood of Christ with the attendant idea that Christ was being re-sacrificed in the mass.
  • The doctrine of penance was firmly in place as the sacrament where post-baptismal sins were “taken care of.”
  • The church had also become very powerful in society and the new universities were now seen to be the centers for theological thinking, rather than the monasteries.
  • Anselms’s doctrine of the sacrifice of Christ acquiring excess merit and depositing into a “heavenly treasury of merit” was firmly in place as well.
  • Augustine’s doctrine of grace was, at least theoretically, in place and grace was seen as crucial to work into the doctrine of salvation.  TA, would actually prove to quite Augustinian, and many later RCs often squirm at this and try to explain it away to find more room for human free will in the process.
  • He makes distinctions between habitual and helping grace, operative and co-operative grace.
  • TA’s Summa Theologica had 3 sections– the first was about God and while mostly natural theology derived from reason using Aristotelian logic, it included those things known only from revelation, such as the Trinity.
  • The 2nd section is about what it means to be and live as human and for long sections sounds like a slightly Christianized version of Aristotle’s ethics, dealing with various virtues, the theological ones of faith, hope and love and the cardinal ones of prudence, temperance, courage and justice.
  1. The ethics of the 2nd section are explicitly teleological– moving from potentiality to actuality– i.e. we move from the potential to be more loving or more prudent because God’s grace moves us to become more loving or more prudent.
  1. All of this is not objectionable per se, since the Bible speaks about growth in godliness.
  1. It is when he applies this to the use of the sacramental system that it becomes stickier.  TA argues that since all of our knowledge is primarily mediated through sense experience, it makes logical sense that our growth in holiness must be mediated through the sacraments, God’s appointed means for us to experience his grace.
  1. He claimed that the sacramental method fit with our status as embodied creatures.
  1. He argues for the traditional RC 7 sacraments: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, marriage, ordination, and last rites, using them as God’s means of moving us from potentiality to actuality.
  1. Baptism, confirmation, and ordination leave an indelible mark and don’t need to be repeated, but the others can be and the Eucharist should be as it is the chief means of bringing us salvation after baptism.
  1. TA defines justification as being made righteous and sees it as the flip side of sanctification or being made holy.  Faith was basically defined as faithfulness by TA. Formally TA could say we are justified by faith, but since he basically defined as it as faithfulness, good works are our ways of demonstrating that faithfulness.
  1. He applies the Aristotelian distinction between substance and accidents to explain the Eucharist.  At the consecration, the bread and wine are changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ in a literal way, while remaining outwardly– the accidents– of bread and wine.
  1. Since both elements contain the whole Christ, he defended giving only the bread to the laity.
  1. This is all set in an essentially Augustinian view of grace.  God’s grace is working in us through the sacraments.  God has graciously made us to receive his grace through physical means.  Baptism is the first grace that washes away original sin– although he was more generous than Augustine about this and consigned unbaptized infants to limbo— confirmation confirms it and as the believer receives the Eucharist in a state of grace after confession, he/she is further justified and sanctified and moved toward the beatific vision when we will be perfected in holiness and be in the presence of God.
  • Good works are the necessary grace inspired co-operation in that process and while he speaks of “merit” he defines it as “condign merit” which means not “actual” merit, but only merit because God chooses to consider it as merit.
  • His doctrine of implicit faith is more circumscribed that that of some and he says one must believe in the Trinity and the deity of Christ, but one doesn’t have to believe much more other than that the church is correct and that grace will come through the sacraments.
  • Purgatory is the place where the unconfessed sins are “purged” away and is a part of God’s gracious system to prepare us for the beatific vision
  • TA’s model is fraught with peril from a Protestant perspective, but it is not a raw “works righteousness” view of salvation.  It’s real practical difficulty is that it makes assurance of salvation almost impossible to have.
  • Later medieval RC theologians would modify the Augustinian notion of grace and replace it with a “God will give you grace if you do the best you can.”  Luther especially fought against this.  A similar version can show up in allegedly Protestant versions: God has done everything for you, now do your part and “accept Christ,’ without any real understanding of what saving faith is– we will talk about this when we look at Luther’s rediscovery of the Gospel.

VI. What we can learn from TA

  1. While the Reformers tried to rid themselves of Aristotelian categories, they found it impossible to do.  The so-called Scholastic Protestant theologians actually used a fair amount of what TA did, especially in his doctrine of God.
  • His proofs have become legendary and still have some value, when seen from a theistic presupposition.
  • Yet his application of Aristotle to the doctrine of salvation would have bad consequences in that it tied salvation so tightly to the sacramental system that the gospel would be compromised in many ways.