Born in his family’s Italian castle at Roccasecca in 1225, Thomas Aquinas grew up to be a known as an unattractive and heavyset man who suffered from dropsy (edema) and had one eye that was unmistakably larger than the other. He was not the most charismatic and dynamic figure but rather a silent, introspective hermit-type who hardly spoke in conversations, and when he did, his words were always awkwardly off-topic. Consequently, his classmates in college rudely called him “the dumb ox.” Some kids will always be mean.
Today, Thomas Aquinas is heralded as one of the greatest theologians of the Middle Ages, earning the nickname “the doctor of angels.”
Kidnapped by his brothers
At the young age of 14, Thomas went off to study at the University of Naples, where he sat under the teaching of a Dominican preacher. The Dominican order is an establishment of friars, nuns, and laypersons founded to spread the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ and to combat heresy. It was famed for its intellectual tradition and has produced many theologians and philosophers. Thomas’ Dominican instructor left such an impression on him, that Thomas decided that he, too, would join the new Dominican order and serve Jesus for the rest of his life.
Wishing he would instead become wealthy and powerful (as opposed to taking the Dominican friar’s vow of poverty), Thomas’ family greatly opposed his decision. Consequently, his own brothers kidnapped him and detained him for 15 months. The entire family went to extreme lengths to prevent him from entering a life of ministry, offering to buy him the highly-esteemed post of archbishop of Naples and even tempting him with a prostitute. By God’s grace, all attempts failed, and his family released him. In 1245, Thomas took off to Paris to study and be ordained. 11 years later, the brilliant “dumb ox” was named a master of theology.
God’s Word vs. human reason
At that time, the Christian church had great influence over all academic learning, and biblical theology reigned supreme in the sciences. However, conflict between Christian theology and Greek philosophy soon arose as non-Christian philosophers like Aristotle the Greek, Averroes the Muslim, and Maimonides the Jew were studied alongside the Bible. This growing emphasis on reason seemingly threatened to undermine the Christian faith. Thomas, the “master of theology”, quickly arose as the most competent Christian thinker to address the clash between faith and reason.
Both theology and reason
Consequently, Thomas hit the books. He carefully and zealously studied over a dozen of Aristotle’s works. He eventually concluded that Aristotle’s well-known writings (dated 350 B.C.-ish) were misread by Islamic scholars and that many of Aristotle’s works were actually compatible with Christianity. Thomas then proceeded to distinguish between philosophy and biblical theology and between reason and revelation, while emphasizing that these did not necessarily contradict each other. He concluded, in agreement with Aristotle, that philosophical reason is based upon sensory data gathered by our five senses (sight, touch, hearing, smell, taste). Thomas then explained that while reason could surely illuminate truths about creation and its creator, only by the revelation of Scripture could one know God as he really is, the God of the Bible.
As a master of theology, Thomas was a committed reader and writer throughout the course of his life. Although he died before his 50th birthday, he produced volumes upon volumes of theology, with a total sum of over 60 works which are still used today. Knowing this, however, would not please Thomas. Toward the end of his life, he stopped writing, and when his secretary begged him to pick up his pen again, he humbly replied, “I cannot. Such things have been revealed to me that what I have written seems but straw.” Thus, his most famous work, the Summa Theologica (or “a summation of theological knowledge”) was never finished. He spent the last months of his life in reported silence until he died and met Jesus face-to-face in 1274.
“In order that men might have knowledge of God, free of doubt and uncertainty, it was necessary for divine truth to be delivered to them by way of faith, being told to them as it were, by God himself who cannot lie.”
—Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica
The post is part of an ongoing series titled, Fridays are for Church Fathers and other faithful saints that have gone before.
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