Theology 101: A Little Aquinas, Part I

In my quest to learn theology, I’ve found that you need to have an understanding of the writings of those who have gone before you.  This is a daunting task, as anyone who has seen Barth or Tillich‘s Systematic Theology tomes.  I discovered, to my delight, a series of books called The Armchair Theologian.  These summarize the views of many of the most important theologians of the past, such as Barth, Wesley, and Augustine.  They are not free from bias; of course every author brings his or her bias to what the write and the various authors that wrote these summaries are no exception.  Also, these are introductions and overviews; they are not by any means complete descriptions of the various theologians beliefs and works!  For that, you should always go to the original source.  But these are good beginner’s surveys.


Today I’d like to start by looking at Thomas Aquinas. Let’s jump right in; you can find the book information at the end of the post!

Chapter 1: Beginnings

In Chapter 1: Beginnings, Renick begins by noting that Aquinas’ “theory of natural law shaped our modern concept of human rights.  His views of the state supplied the model for Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.”  He is the one who came up with the concepts of Jus in bello and Jus ad bellum, and he is the one who came up with many of the most well-known proofs of the existence of God.  Aquinas’ thinking was in reaction to the new universities springing up and the Muslim ideas being brought back by the crusaders.  He wanted to show that “the truths of the Bible and the truths of Christianity could be shown to have a rational basis”  and used reason to prove it.

Aquinas was born around 1225 in Aquino, between Rome and Naples.  He was the youngest of seven sons, and was sent to the Benedictines at 5 yrs old; despite this, he liked it.  He studied Aristotle at the University of Naples at 14 (including Politics, ethics, and Metaphysics).  Note that Aristotle was considered dangerous because his books conflicted with Church teachings.  After University, Thomas joined the Dominicans and took a vow of poverty, which didn’t sit well with his family.  Two of his brothers tried to talk him out of it, supposedly hiring a prostitute who tried to seduce Thomas.  Instead he fended her off with a fireplace poker, drew a cross on the wall, and begged God to grant him constant virginity, which appears to have happened.  Bernard Gui, Thomas’ biographer, wrote “From that time onwards, it was his custom to avoid the sight and company of women – except in case of necessity or utility – as a man avoids snakes.” Despite this his writings on sex have been influential.  Also,  he was apparently a chubby fellow and had a good memory.

Summa Theologica is over two million words.  The eidetic and eclectic Aquinas integrated the Bible, Aristotle (“The Philosopher”), Augustine, Jerome, Maimonides, Averroes, Avicenna, and others into it.  He gave sermons, and was a professor at the University of Paris, beginning his lectures at 6:00 AM – amazingly, they were well-attended.  He died in 1274, the Summa unfinished.

Thomism was condemned 3 years later as it used Aristotle who was considered to be heretical.  This was done by the Archbishop of Paris and the Archbishop of Canterbury.  But since the pagans and Jews did not accept the Bible as true, one had to appeal to reason, and so his ideas became needed to defend the faith.  In 1323, a few years after the lifting of the ban, the Church initiated the process of making Thomas a saint.  The poker incident was one of two miracles needed for sainthood; the other was the fact that on his deathbed, he asked for herring, although it wasn’t the season for them, and it just so happened that a fishing boat came in that day with…a herring.

In 1879, Pope Leo XIII declared Thomism to be official theology of the Roman-Catholic Church.  This was reiterated by John Paul II in his encyclical Faith and Reason.

Chapter 2: Humans, Angels, and God

Reason needs faith – not everything can be proved by reason alone, such as the Trinity.  These things must be revealed.

Faith needs reason – Aquinas felt that “human beings are unique, somewhat like the animals and somewhat like the angels but identical to neither.” Animals learn things using their senses, but angels can’t because they don’t have physical bodies.  So, they learn using their “intellect,” which Aquinas defines as “the ability to know truths intuitively, to experience things…on a direct intellectual level,” in much the same way that we “know” we are in love.  The angels thus know metaphysical truths and can know and experience God in a way that a dog cannot.

Humans, thus, can do both.  Morals cannot be empirically established, but are “known” metaphysically.  However, since we are both physical and intellectual, we are not as good as the angels at knowing things purely intellectually.  Our physical senses can confuse us.  But, since God made us with both types of senses, we should use both types of senses to understand the cosmos and know God.  This includes using your reason and intellect but also your physical senses (one reason that depending only on faith healing is wrong). “Science and medicine are a testimony, not a threat, to God’s design.”

“…Aquinas writes, ‘It is impossible for items that belong to reason to be contrary to those that pertain to faith.” If the belief is ‘true’, then faith has nothing to fear of it.  If the belief is false, then it cannot be a dictate of reason.”

Aquinas had five proofs of God’s existence, often called the “Five Ways” and that present the same argument five parallel ways.  The first is the argument from motion.  Empirically: Things move.  Whatever is moved must be moved by another.  So, something must have started the movement, and this is the “First Mover“.  This, Aquinas says, is God (although this does not prove the existence of the Christian God).  Immanuel Kant says, however – what moved the First Mover?  If you don’t need anything, then why do you need a first mover?

Several other philosophers such as Etienne Gilson have rebutted Kant.  Today, science relegates the role to nature as the first mover, but, the question remains, “How does ‘nature’ in this sense differ from the “God” of the religious believer?  What do we mean by “God” other than, in the first instance, that force which generated the cosmos?…who or what caused the Big Bang?  Where did the matter that exploded come from in the first place?”

The other four are the First Cause, the Argument from Contingency, the Argument from Degree, and the Teleological Argument (or Argument from Design).

Aquinas also felt that reason could tell us some things about God’s nature.  He said that God is immutable (unchangeable) in every way.  His reasoning was that if God had changed it would be for better or worse.  “If God is perfect, he could not have changed for the better or he would not have been perfect.  He could not have changed for the worse, or He would not now be perfect.”  The author notes that this does not take into account a morally neutral change.  This belief, that God doesn’t change at all, is still strongly held today by most Christians.

So, since “God is the author of a reasonable universe…what we know and say about [Him] should be reasonable” as well.


Source: Aquinas for Armchair Theologians, Timothy M. Renick, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY 2002

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