Introducing Thomas Aquinas

Today is the feast day of Thomas Aquinas. In honor of him, and his goal “to instruct beginners according to the Apostle (As until little ones in Christ, I gave you milk to drink, not meat)” I have decided to write a post introducing Aquinas to those who don’t know him.

Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) is one of the greatest Christian theologians who ever lived. He was born at a time of great change and uncertainty, a time much like our own. The Church was trying to deal with all sorts of potentially threatening cultural development: the expansion of the Muslim empire in Europe, the decline of feudalism, the repercussions of the Crusades, and the discovery of Aristotle’s corpus. At such a tumultuous time, Aquinas was an innovator. He wanted to take what was good from what was new and use it to serve his project, a project he saw as a quest for truth, a quest specifically for divine truth.

Aquinas wrote an awful lot that nobody reads these days. He started his studies in Paris writing commentaries on different books of the Bible as well as a commentary on the major textbook of the time called The Sentences by Peter Lombard (who he refers to as “the Master”). He wrote some other works (On Truth, On Evil) as well as some commentaries, most notably on Aristotle’s works. Aristotle (who he calls “the Philosopher”) was just being introduced into the curriculum of major European universities and he was very controversial at the time.

The biggest work, however, that Thomas wrote is called the Summa Theologica–the sum of theology. He started writing it for young seminarians who were having a difficult time learning the truths of the faith because the theological textbooks at the time were so atrocious. Thomas sought a better organized and more easily understandable textbook that would systematically and coherently teach the faith.

His method can be difficult for beginners. He did, after all, live 800 years ago. If you are interested in reading Aquinas, I would say you should have a handy guide to accompany your studies. I recommend Thomas O’Meara’s book called Thomas Aquinas Theologian which does a great job outlining the basic structure and methodology of the Summa as well as identifying some of the major themes of Aquinas’ work.

The Summa is divided into three parts. These are called the Prima Pars, Secundae Pars, and Tertia Pars (first, second, and third part respectively. People reading Aquinas still like to use a lot of Latin). The first part is about God and deals with natural theology, the wisdom of God, predestination, God’s creative work, and His governance of the universe. The second part is about God’s image, human beings. It is divided into two parts, known as the Prima Secundae (first part of the second part) and the Secundae Secundae( second part of the second part). The Prima Secundae talks about human beings generally–their end, acts, passions, habits, virtues, sin, and grace. The Secundae Secundae talks about the specific virtues beginning with the three theological virtues faith, hope, and love and the four cardinal virtues prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The Tertia Pars talks about Christ and the sacraments but Aquinas died before completing it.

The Summa is largely divided into questions which are further divided into articles. When you see citations from the Summa, you usually see the book, the question, and the article listed in order. I-II, Q. 9, art. 2 or I-II, 9.2 refers to the first part of the second part, ninth question, second article. Each question is on a general topic and each article is in the form of a question like “whether sacred doctrine is a science” or “whether religion is a virtue. Thomas usually cites somewhere around three opinions from either scripture, the tradition, or reason giving an apparent answer to the question. Then Thomas presents what is called the Sed Contra (on the contrary) giving his answer to the question, citing some authority like Augustine (who he sometimes calls “the Theologian”), Paul (the “Apostle”) , or Aristotle. Then he gives what is called the Respondeo, the body of his argument where he explains his answer to the question, usually by making distinctions and explaining terms. Then Thomas responds to each of the objections he raised in the first part of the article.

In his response, he is always thoughtful, thorough, and systematic. He does not treat these opinions as errors but as stimuli for discovering some new aspect of truth. His is always a spirit of dialogue, of careful listening and of response. Whatever has an intimation of truth he keeps. And he strives to reconcile different views by making distinctions, by figuring out the essence of the question at hand.

The Summa is often said to have an archetectonic structure and unity and it is most often compared to a cathedral. All the parts fit beautifully together. All of the parts are integrated and co-dependent. That being said, I think it important to emphasize that Aquinas saw himself first and foremost as a theologian, and by placing his project at the service of divine truth, he recognizes that he is completely dependent on grace. Without grace, Thomas says, man could know no truth.

A great resource for reading the Summa is New Advent site which has the entire text online and makes searching easy. Joseph Pieper has a good book on Thomas Aquinas, and G.K. Chesterton has a wonderful book called The Dumb Ox. These are helpful if you want to know about Thomas’ life. But Thomas O’Meara’s book is by far the best guide for actually reading the Summa. And, of course, there is always my blog which tries to put Aquinas into dialogue with contemporary questions and concerns.

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1 comment so far

  1. Kevin on

    Bethany:

    I am a big fan of Thomas. Really fell in love when a Jesuit friend of mine wrote a book about The Treatise on the Passions and its use for social justice. It made me go back and read more Aquinas.

    Though, I am not on your level of love as you and Tom have a special thing going.

    Reading this post made me think of Comparative Theology. As you described Thomas and his time and his search for truth and his willingness even to look to a pagan thinker to find that truth and to use that…I was thinking about how comparative theologians (good ones at any rate) are doing this as well. Looking for ways to talk about truth and willing to go to the other faiths to dig up truth about God and Christ, etc.

    I just took a course last semester with Francis Sullivan and he pointed out how comparative theology can do such a service to the church by doing this search.

    I just thought it interesting to think of Aquinas as an early comparative theologian in a way. Dialoguing with pagan philosophy to find how it can help one to think about Christ.

    Good luck on comps. Enjoy today’s feast day. 😉

    Blessings my sister in Christ.


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