Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Life and Influence of Thomas Aquinas


The Life of St. Thomas Aquinas 

Thomas Aquinas was one of the most, if not the single most influential theologian and leader of the medieval era of Christianity. He founded the school of Thomism, as well as the ideas and theology behind the Dominican school of thought within catholic theology of the time. Aquinas also made great use of Aristotle’s philosophy, but more so, he contributed to it’s popular use in society at that time and after. Thomas Aquinas was not particularly popular or well accepted in his own time, he was well appreciated by the Dominicans of course, but was a theological adversary to the Franciscans. But of course, after Aquinas, his life, thought, theology, and philosophy would influence Christianity and the world for generations to come. Aquinas is considered the foremost of the medieval scholastics.


Saint Thomas Aquinas was born 1224 or 1225 in Roccasecca, in the Kingdom of Sicily (Chenu, 2020). He was baptized under the name Thomas, signifying the meaning: “abyss” (Conway, 2016). He died in 1274. Thomas was placed in the Monte Cassino when he was a young boy, as a prospective monk, and his parents hoped that he would one day become a wealthy leader within the church (Chenu, 2020). He spent nine years there until 1239 when the emperor expelled all monks from the area, due to their rigid service to the pope (Chenu, 2020). Later Aquinas joined the University of Naples and there joined with the Dominicans, a school of thought that had developed approximately 30 years prior (Chenu, 2020). Aquinas took a vow of poverty, and his parents became increasingly disturbed by his chosen vocation (Chenu, 2020). His family had Aquinas kidnapped on the road to Paris and he was held prisoner for over a year, before they finally allowed him to follow the path of God’s will. Apparently while he was in captivity his parents locked him in a tower with a prostitute so that he would give up his vow of celibacy (Conway, 2016, p. 16-19). But he instead prayed earnestly and experienced a dream of two angels who named him a perpetual virgin, and he was delivered from this temptation, winning the prostitute to Christ (Conway, 2016, p. 18-19). He returned to Paris to the convent of Saint-Jacques, the hub of Dominican activity at this point in history (Chenu, 2020). There Aquinas studied under St. Albertus Magnus who helped shape his thought and ideas in many ways. Many theologians during this time feared that Arabian-Aristotelian scientific thought, including rationalism and naturalism were serious dangers to the church. But Aquinas didn’t fear these ideas. He embraced Aristotelian thought, studying it deeply and began lecturing on it (Chenu, 2020). Thomas eventually left Paris with his mentor Albertus Magnus in 1248 to a convent in Cologne, where Magnus would head up the faculty (Chenu, 2020). Thomas stayed for four years, then departed again for Paris in 1252 to begin work on a Master of Theology (Chenu, 2020). He completed the degree in 1256 and began teaching at a Dominican school in Paris at that time (Chenu, 2020).

According to Chenu (2020), “In 1259 Thomas was appointed theological adviser and lecturer to the papal Curia, then the centre of Western humanism. He returned to Italy, where he spent two years at Anagni at the end of the reign of Pope Alexander IV and four years at Orvieto with Pope Urban IV. From 1265 to 1267 he taught at the convent of Santa Sabina in Rome, and he then, at the request of Pope Clement IV, went to the papal Curia in Viterbo. Suddenly, in November 1268, he was sent to Paris, where he became involved in a sharp doctrinal polemic that had just been triggered off.”

In 1272 Aquinas traveled to Italy to establish a school of Dominican thought at the University of Naples. During this time another controversy developed in which a friend of Thomas’ in Paris St. Bonaventure began to criticize Aristotelian thought which included Thomas’ use of it.

It was in 1274 that Pope Gregory X summoned Thomas to the second Council of Lyons in the hopes of healing the controversy which had developed between Greek and Latin churches at that time (Chenu, 2020). While St. Thomas traveled to the council, he became ill, so he stopped to rest at the Cistercian abbey of Fossanova, and there he died (Chenu, 2020). Five year after his death, the masters of Paris, a very important and powerful theological council condemned twelve statements made by Thomas Aquinas. These theses of Aquinas were condemned, and the implications of this condemnation would be far reaching. Later Aquinas teachings would become increasingly influential in medieval Christianity, eventually playing an important role in the Catholic church’s response to the reformation (Boland & Bailey, 2014, p. 124).

The Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas was deeply influenced by Aristotle’s philosophy of reason. Aquinas believed that there were two primary avenues to understand God, through revelation and through reason. Aquinas believed that theology as explored through the texts of scripture were understood primarily through revelation, the concept that God guides us to understand himself. But Aquinas also believed that reason was useful in understanding God and the world around us. He brought together Theology and Aristotelian philosophy, while also considering them distinctly separate.

St. Thomas is probably best well known for his famous five proofs for the existence of God. While Anselm believed that the existence of God was self-evident and that from faith one could investigate to find evidence for God’s existence, Aquinas believed that God’s existence was not self-evident, and there was another option for finding belief in God, and that was by investigation.

The first argument is the argument from the order of movement in nature (The Thomistic Institute). The idea here is that movement is caused by something, so if you go all the way to the beginning, you must find a prime mover (The Thomistic Institute). There cannot be an infinite regression, so there must be an unmoved mover (The Thomistic Institute). This necessity of a prime mover proves God exists. The proof from causality is the idea that every cause has an effect in the world. So, with every cause, there must also be a first cause, an uncaused cause (The Thomistic Institute). This points to the existence of God.

The next is the proof from contingency and the necessary (The Thomistic Institute). The mind-numbing contingency argument suggests that things exist, and this is surprising, because why should they exist? So since contingent beings do exist, and have no reason for existing, therefore God exists. The fourth is degrees of perfection. Given that we find things in the world that exist at various degrees closer or further from perfection, a perfect perfection must exist, therefore God exists (The Thomistic Institute).

The fifth is the concept that things without intelligence in nature work toward orderly ends (The Thomistic Institute). For example, bees in a beehive have no intelligence, but they build toward an end by producing honey and a sustained colony. Therefore, it’s logical to say that a higher being, God, has guided these ends, or programmed these entities with this instinct. These proofs were groundbreaking and helped form the impotence for future explorations of apologetics and explorations of reasonable evidence for the existence of God (The Thomistic Institute).

Thomas Aquinas also explored a great deal regarding speculative theology of the Trinity (Emery & Murphy, 2010). Aquinas found great value in a deep understanding of trinitarian theology in the life of a believer. He indicated that an understanding of the trinity was necessary to understand God’s creative work and thus also the works within the creation itself (Emery & Murphy, 2010, p. 8). Indeed, he believed one could not understand salvation itself without deeply understanding the trinity because God worked out salvation through the working of the trinity on those who were saved (Emery & Murphy, 2010, p. 8). Aquinas wrote, “It is not possible to believe explicitly in the mystery of Christ, without faith in the Trinity, since the mystery of Christ includes that the Son of God took flesh; that he renewed the world through the grace of the Holy Spirit; and again, that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit” (Emery & Murphy, 2010, p. 8). St. Thomas wrote extensively on the Trinity in works like Summa Theologiae, Summa contra Gentiles, Summa contra Gentiles, and Scriptum super libros Sententiarum (Commentary on the Sentences) (Emery & Murphy, 2010).

The Legacy of St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Thomas Aquinas stands as a giant of the medieval era of Christianity, and as a giant of historic Christianity overall. Thomas Aquinas’ acceptance of reason in the Aristotelian vein was historic in syncretizing Christianity with reason in a way that helped forge it’s spread and deepen it’s ability to describe a world increasingly explored and explained through science and reason.

His three famous works Summa Theologiae, The Summa Contra Gentiles, and Disputed Questions on Truth greatly influenced the Medieval era and massively influenced historic Christianity (The Thomistic Institute).

St. Thomas immediately after his death was viewed as a controversial figure, with some of his ideas being condemned shortly after his death. However, as soon as the 14th century translations of his works were appearing in German, Greek, and Armenian (Boland & Bailey, 2014, p. 124). In the mid fifteenth and sixteenth centuries numerous Thomistic theologians made extensive use of Aquinas’ works, and wrote numerous commentaries on them. During the great reformation, the works of Aquinas were central in formulating the Catholic churches response to Luther and the rest of the reformers (Boland & Bailey, 2014, p. 124). The works of Aquinas continued to influence society and the church into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well in various ways (Boland & Bailey, 2014). Without a doubt, St. Thomas Aquinas left a massive mark on the world through his explorations of Aristotelian thought, his contributions to the Dominican movement of the Catholic faith, his many intellectual, philosophical, and theological works, as well as his legacy through the Thomistic movement.

 

References

Boland, V., & Bailey, R. (2014). St. Thomas Aquinas. London: Continuum.

Chenu, M. (2020, April 27). St. Thomas Aquinas. Retrieved October 17, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Thomas-Aquinas

Conway, P. (2016). Saint Thomas Aquinas. Forgotten Books.

Emery, G., & Murphy, F. A. (2010). The Trinitarian theology of St Thomas Aquinas. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McInerny, R., & O'Callaghan, J. (2014, May 23). Saint Thomas Aquinas. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aquinas/

The Thomistic Institute. (n.d.). Aquinas 101. Retrieved from http://www.Aquinas101.com/

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