Thomas Aquinas

Let me ramble on without any promise of making any sense. It helps me think and if you get something out of it, well, that’s just a bonus.

Seven years ago I discovered Saint Augustine. He was the guardian of certain treasure which I believe the Lord wanted me to discover through him: The City of God.

And now (to use what may sound like religious language) I’ve been feeling “led” to explore Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) Medieval theologian and philosopher. Other than Augustine, Aquinas is the most influential theologian in Christian history.

I just finished G.K. Chesterton’s brilliant biography, Saint Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox” and my head is abuzz.

Now the rambling begins…

Aquinas asserted that Faith and Reason are in no way contradictory. There are not two truths — spiritual truth and rational truth — but only Truth. Indeed, all truth is God’s truth. I’ve said before that, in theory, one could study any object in the universe, a pea for example, and ultimately it would lead to the knowledge of God.* But the problem is it takes too long, and thus the need for what Aquinas called “special revelation” — a divine shortcut to knowing God. Primarily, special revelation is the Scriptures.

* Edit: Alert emailer, Pat, sent this poem to me in reference to this point…

Flower in the Crannied Wall

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies;
Hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson

As far as the Scriptures go, Aquinas noted that the meaning of Scripture is often far from self-evident and therefore Scripture must be interpreted in the light of other truths. If a literal interpretation is absolutely contradicted by an obvious fact, then we must acknowledge that the literal interpretation is a false interpretation. But it must really be an obvious fact.

Plato was to Augustine what Aristotle was to Aquinas.

Plato said that reality was found in the world of idealized (but theoretical) forms.

Aristotle said that reality was actually in what we call reality — that which can be known through the senses.

Thus in the Renaissance painting, The School of Athens by Raphael, Plato is pointing toward heaven and the realm of idealized forms, while Aristotle gestures toward the earth and the realm of substantive form.

(Read about this famous painting here.)

The church has been too Greek, too Platonic, too much with Augustine*; which is to say, too other-worldly.

* Edit: Don’t get me wrong, I love Augustine. His writings have been an absolute treasure to me. I’m just saying that his Platonic pining for the spiritual realm occasionally needs to be pulled back to earth by the likes of the Dumb Ox.

We need to be more Jewish, which would be more like Aristotle and Aquinas; which is to say, we need to come back down to earth.

To quote Chesterton:

Nobody will begin to understand
[Aquinas’ theology and philosophy] who does not realize that the primary and fundamental part of it is entirely the praise of Life, the praise of Being, the praise of God as the Creator of the World.

The problem with Plato and being so “heavenly minded” is that it’s very easy to slip into the false notion that there is something evil about the material creation itself — and this is a grievous error. It’s this kind of thinking that causes the dualist to say that evil is an equal partner with good and causes the Calvinist to suggest that God created evil; i.e. an evil will.

But the truth is that God looked upon all things that He had made and pronounced it very good. Therefore, there are no “bad things” — only bad uses of things. There are no bad things, only bad thoughts and intentions.

(A partially developed thought: Things possessing free will can choose to be bad and thus become bad, thus necessitating hell. Hell is the final result of a very bad use of a very good thing — free will.)

Again, to quote Chesterton…

Only Calvinists can really believe that hell is paved with good intentions. That is exactly the one thing it cannot be paved with. But it is possible to have bad intentions about good things.

The devil can pervert things by a bad intention, but he cannot make things bad, for the very reason that God is the creator of all things and He made all things good.

You can murder a man by beating him with a stick or drowning him in water, but trees and lakes are not bad things.

Aquinas believed that God’s physical creation is good and that life is to be embraced and enjoyed and not thought of as something from which we must escape. Escape from life is the hope of the Buddhist, not the Christian. Life is where it’s at! As the Jews say, L’chaim! (To life!)

Stop thinking there is something noble about wanting to escape life. God created you for life and God intends for life to be good.

Let me paraphrase from Chesterton…

Thomas Aquinas with a most solid and colossal conviction believed in Life and in the livableness of life. If Shakespeare suggests that the morbid Renaissance intellectual is supposed to say, To be or not to be — that is the question, then the massive medieval theologian does most certainly reply in a voice of thunder, To be — that is the answer!

Ha! I love that!

(And yes, there is more than a hint of Christian Existentialism there…six hundered years before Kierkegaard — but the optimistic kind.)

Plato might be forgiven for thinking that the great desire of man should be to escape the body, since he lived before Christ. But those living on this side of the Incarnation and Resurrection must think otherwise. All of the great promises of God are fulfilled in resurrection — the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the saints.


One final quote from good ol’ G.K. (slightly paraphrased)…

The Body was no longer what it was when Plato and the old mystics had left it for dead. It had hung upon a cross. It had risen from a tomb. It was no longer possible for the soul to despise the senses, which had been the organs of Him who was more than a man. Plato might despise the flesh, but God had not despised it. The senses had truly become sanctified.




I’m in “the cave” this week preparing for Faith Life Weekend: FAITH x 5

We start Friday night. See you then.