St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) was an Italian theologian born in his family’s castle near Aquino. While staying in a Dominican monastery, his family members couldn’t accept his decision to become a monk and abducted him, taking him prisoner for two years. He fled to Germany where he taught in 1248 after studying under Albertus Magnus.
Aquinas’ theological work borrows heavily from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, recasting his arguments within a Christian framework. This is particularly evident in Aquinas’ treatment of time and eternity, which for him are different. Aquinas adapts Aristotle’s notion of a “prime mover” in saying that God is eternal and knows what will be for all time.
This does not mean, as some maintain, that the future exists in its own right. Rather, for Aquinas the mind of God has perfect knowledge of the future. Aspects of this knowledge may be imparted to individuals in the present through prophecy.¹
Although Aquinas wrote extensively on angels and spiritual powers, his work recognizes the importance of knowledge gained from sense experience and experimentation. His Summa Theologia attempts to provide a comprehensive theology. The Summa outlines Five Ways to prove the existence of God. Like most theological proofs of God, these often seem self-evident to believers but somewhat weak to skeptics.
Much of the contemporary Catholic catechism cites Aquinas to support Catholic teaching and practice. This might be a little ironic if, indeed, legends are true about what Aquinas apparently said after receiving some kind of heavenly vision toward the close of his life:
“All my works seem like straw after what I have seen”, St Thomas told Brother Reginald.²
Meanwhile, another legend claims:
“Aquinas heard a voice from a cross that told him he had written well.”³
Neither, one, or both of these legends could be true. That both might be true is possible because theoretical discourse is often a necessary precursor to more immediate forms of experience, not just with regard to spirituality but most human endeavors.4
Despite its medieval limitations, the sheer scope and intricacy of Aquinas’ work is impressive. No wonder the popular writer Umberto Eco likened St. Thomas to a “medieval computer.” To modern thinkers, however, it seems unwarranted for one person to set out to definitively explain the workings of God.
While Aquinas may have humbly admitted his intellectual grandiosity after having a direct experience of the godhead, it seems that some contemporary theologians continue to adhere to his kind of medieval analytical framework, with all the strengths and weaknesses that such an approach might provide.
Aquinas was canonized in 1323 and was given the formal title, Doctor Angelicus. His feast day is 28 January.
¹ The contemporary idea of time dilation complicates this distinction.
4 We often study conceptual basics before actually doing. Not to say that theory and practice are mutually exclusive; instead, we can look at theory and practice as a dynamic continuum. For example, one studies the rules of the road before taking a driver’s test. But licensed drivers continue to revise their driving theory as a result of ongoing experience (e.g. how much to slow down in snowy conditions). And the same could apply to some forms of spirituality.
- Eucharist and St. Thomas Aquinas (vatikos.wordpress.com)
- Thomas of Aquinas on Friendship (deamicitia.wordpress.com)
- Five pieces to read on the Memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas, priest and Doctor (insightscoop.typepad.com)
- St Thomas Aquinas’ Lecture on Psalm 50 (catholicpopcultureblog.wordpress.com)
- St. Thomas Aquinas says: Praise be to Jesus.” Be wise in the leadership you support. God has given you a heart, not to be tricked, but to reason according to Holy Love. Pray for wisdom. (kenjohnston98.wordpress.com)
- Community groups provide holiday meals to families in need (abqjournal.com)
- Drama around skull and bones of Thomas Aquinas (ivarfjeld.com)
- “St. Thomas Aquinas and the Thirteenth Century” by Josef Pieper (insightscoop.typepad.com)