Thomas Aquinas: His Life and Contribution

I am studying the life and works of Thomas Aquinas for a history class I’m taking. So I figured I would do a few posts on Aquinas’ life and works. In this post I want to consider Thomas Aquinas’ life and contribution to the church.

First, who was Thomas Aquinas? Aquinas was born in the 13th century, in 1225, near the town of Aquino — hence he was named Thomas of Aquino, or Aquinas. Aquinas was born into a wealthy royal family. Taylor Marshall tells us,

His father was the Count of Aquino and his mother was the Countess of Theate. This noble bloodline related Thomas to the Hohenstaufen dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire — a dynasty that includes the infamous Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. (Thomas Aquinas in 50 Pages, 3)

We also know that one of Aquinas’ relatives was the Roman Emperor. Because of his noble birth, his parents had planned to make him Abbot over the monastery in Monte Cassino. Marshall tells us that this monastic house was considered “the motherhouse of medieval monasticism…To be the Abbot of Monte Cassino was to reign as a prince” (Thomas Aquinas in 50 pages, 3).

In 1230, Aquinas’ parents sent him to the same monastery for education; however, during his teenage years, his parents were forced to relocate him due to war in the surrounding region. His parents sent him away to the University of Naples. It was during this time that Aquinas came under the influence of men who would change his direction in life forever. Taylor Marshall explains:

As a student in Naples, the young Thomas fell under the influence of an inspired preacher by the name of John of Saint Julian. John of Saint Julian belonged to a new order of religious that did not identify themselves as “monks”, but rather as “brothers” or “friars”. John of Saint Julian belonged to a new movement, considered fanatical by some, known as the Order of the Preachers or “Dominicans”…This Order of Preachers was simply…a brotherhood of itinerant preachers who went from town to town, often barefoot and begging for food. They slept in fields, barns, or wherever they were allowed. Unlike Benedict Abbot of Monte Cassino, who rode stately horses and wre jewels and silk, the Dominicans lived a radical life of poverty and preaching. This life of penance appealed to the young Thomas, to the shock of his parents (Thomas Aquinas in 50 pages, 4)

It was this influence that led Thomas to denounce his calling to be Abbot. Instead, Thomas would live in poverty, a beggar and traveling preacher — he would be a Dominican Friar! To be a Dominican, one would swear himself to poverty, to literally be a “dog for the Lord”, which is what Dominican means in Latin (Domini canes). At age 19, in 1244, he joined the order, and journeyed north to Rome to start his studies.

His family, however, would not have it. During his trip, his own brothers (at the request of his mother) kidnapped him and locked him in their castle in Monte San Giovanni Campano. This “house arrest” lasted for one year; and during this time, his mother and brothers attempted to dissuade him from joining the friars.

Feser comments on this time:

In hope of getting him to change his mind, his brothers abducted him and put him under house arrest at the family castle… for about a year, though he spent time committing to memory the entire Bible and four books of the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Notoriously, they even went to the extent of sending a prostitute into his room on one occasion, but he chased her away with a flaming stick pulled from the fireplace, which he used afterward to make a sign of the cross on the wall. As the story has it, he then kneeled before the cross and prayed for the gift of perpetual chastity, which he received at the hands of two angels who girded his loins with a miraculous cord. Eventually his brothers relented and he was allowed to return to the Dominicans (Aquinas, 3-4)

After being released in 1245, Thomas’ order assigned him to the university in Paris where he would study theology under Albert the Great. It was during this time that Thomas Aquinas was given the name “Dumb Ox” by his classmates because of his large, yet quiet stature. GK Chesterton tells us this of Thomas Aquinas:

Thomas was a huge heavy bull of a man, fat and slow and quiet; very mild and magnanimous but not very sociable; shy, even apart from the humility of holiness… [He] was so stolid that the scholars, in the schools in which he attended regularly, thought he was a dunce (Dumb Ox, 4)

Understandably, it was because of this trait that Thomas struggled to integrate with his fellow students. Feser tells us that during those years, Albert the Great, seeing Aquinas’ great intellect, warned his class that “the Ox’s ‘bellowing’ would someday be heard throughout the world” (ibid, 4). How right he was!

It was also during this time under Albert, that Aquinas was greatly influenced by Aristotle. And while Thomas loved Aristotle, the university was quite apprehensive to philosophy. In fact, in order to study him, Aquinas had to take an extra “track” at the university, because philosophy was considered a “secular” subject rather than theological.

After graduating with a masters, Thomas Aquinas went on to teach in the university in Paris and in other Dominican houses for the next 13 years (1259-72). We are told by Ralph McInerny, that it was customary for Dominican masters to teach for a three year segment in the formal university, and then move on to teach in houses of the Dominican Orders. However, because of Thomas’ great intellect, he was invited to teach a second three-year stint (McInerny, Aquinas, 16-23).

During Aquinas’ second stint teaching in the university of Paris, a controversy arose over the place of Aristotle and pagan philosophy in the church: a group of Aristotelians called the Averroists espoused a theory called the “two truth” theory, which argued that something could be true philosophically that is not true theologically — hence, two types of “truth”. Aquinas argued against this position, seeing the inherent danger. He ultimately argued that all truth is God’s truth, whether it be philosophical, theological, or scientific. I will take up this topic in another post.

Thomas Aquinas was an avid writer. In fact, McInerny tells us that “Thomas’ output during…[his] years in Paris seems scarcely credible” (ibid, 23). To write faster, McInerny tells us that Thomas would write in shorthand. McInery explains:

A feature of Thomas’ manuscripts is the obvious haste with which they were written, in shorthand Latin, in a scrawl which led to calling a text of Thomas litera inintellgibilis, unreadable writing. Eventually he would be assigned secretaries, among them Reginald of Piperno, who took down Thomas dictation, a process which doubtless increased his productivity. (ibid, 18)

Thomas wrote many works under this method, with his most important being the unfinished Summa Theologica, which he began in 1265.

After his time in Paris was finished, in 1272, he returned to Naples and lived in the Dominican house there. McInerny tells us that it was during this time that Thomas did something strange: he stopped writing altogether. McInerny explains:

On December 6, 1273, Thomas decided to stop writing. Some biographers conjecture that he had a kind of mental breakdown. But it was a mystical experience that silenced Thomas. After what he had seen, he told Reginald (his secretary), everything he had written seemed mere straw. He could not bring himself to complete the Summa (ibid, 25).

Apparently a heavenly vision halted Thomas’ writing. Thomas never spoke of the details of what he saw, but the magnificence of it made his writings seem inadequate. Fortunately, some of Thomas’ disciples supplemented his incomplete Summa with other commentaries of his after his death. Toward the end of his life, Thomas was summoned to a council in Lyons in 1274. While on his way to that council, he hit his head on a branch, and died soon after from complications on March 7, 1274. He was only 49 years old when he died.

What was Aquinas’ greatest contribution to the church? GK Chesterton is helpful with this question: he says simply that Thomas “reconciled Aristotle with Christ” (Dumb Ox, 8). What he means is that Thomas Aquinas synthesized philosophy with Christianity. Many Christians then (and today) did not believe that reason and philosophy could be trusted or reconciled with the Christian worldview. However, Thomas argued that this was not the case.

Chesterton goes on to explain:

Thomas was a very great man who reconciled religion with reason, who expanded it toward experimental science, who insisted that the senses were windows to the soul and that reason had a divine right to feed upon facts, and that it was the business of the Faith to digest the strong meat of the toughest and most practical of pagan philosophies…It was the very life of the Thomist teaching that Reason can be trusted (ibid, 11)

Faith and reason, in other words, were what Thomas labored to reconcile. We will go on in later posts to examine just what that means.

How do Catholics view Protestants?


My study of the Catholic faith started with a conversation I had with a fellow pastor. And one question that we both asked, and a question that all must ask, is whether Catholics can be viewed as Christian, or saved, from the Protestant scheme of things. This forced me to study their beliefs, particularly on justification and the cross. And while their beliefs are different, I accept Catholic baptism, as did John Calvin and many of the Reformers. Though we may disagree on some fundamental issues concerning the nature of salvation, what I have to affirm is that Jesus is able to save anyone, even when their theology is different from mine.

But another question that remains, is whether Catholics accept Protestants as Christian. In other words, are Protestants, who follow Jesus, saved in the eyes of Catholics? One might say that their sacramentalism prohibits them from accepting Protestants are being saved. What I mean is that for Catholics, baptism is necessary for forgiveness, and confession is necessary for the forgiveness of new sins. And, the eucharist is necessary for deeper and deeper union with Jesus. Could they possibly think we are saved if we don’t understand the sacraments in this manner?

Over my time reading about Catholicism, I have compiled some fascinating quotes from Catholic scholars. And here is the conclusion they draw: yes, Protestants are saved, but they are critically deformed in many matters of faith and practice. What I mean, is that while they can affirm that Protestants are saved, they cannot affirm that Protestants are healthy. Why? Because us Protestants lack many of the crucial practices of the Catholic church.

For instance, GK Chesterton says in his theodicy of the Catholic faith (source):

Protestants are Catholics gone wrong; that is what is really meant by saying they are Christians. Sometimes they have gone very wrong; but not often have they gone right ahead with their own particular wrong. Thus a Calvinist is a Catholic obsessed with the Catholic idea of the sovereignty of God. But when he makes it mean that God wishes particular people to be damned, we may say with all restraint that he has become a rather morbid Catholic. In point of fact he is a diseased Catholic; and the disease left to itself would be death or madness. But, as a matter of fact, the disease did not last long, and is itself now practically dead. But every step he takes back towards humanity is a step back towards Catholicism. Thus a Quaker is a Catholic obsessed with the Catholic idea of gentle simplicity and truth. But when he made it mean that it is a lie to say “you” and an act of idolatry to take off your hat to a lady, it is not too much to say that whether or not he had a hat off, he certainly had a tile loose. But as a matter of fact he himself found it necessary to dispense with the eccentricity (and the hat) and to leave the straight road that would have led him to a lunatic asylum. Only every step he takes back towards common sense is a step back towards Catholicism. In so far as he was right he was a Catholic; and in so far as he was wrong he has not himself been able to remain a Protestant.

To us, therefore, it is henceforth impossible to think of the Quaker as a figure at the beginning of a new Quaker history or the Calvinist as the founder of a new Calvinistic world. It is quite obvious to us that they are simply characters in our own Catholic history, only characters who caused a great deal of trouble by trying to do something that we could do better and that they did not really do at all.

Now what is Chesterton saying? Whatever Protestants have right, they have it right because it is in line with Catholicism. And, whatever they have wrong, it is a disease that must be corrected. Hence, Calvinists are obsessed withs sovereignty, and Quakers with simplicity.

Hans Urs von Balthasar says of Protestantism (source):

The more Christianity splinters, the more unrecognizable becomes that Church that has persisted, through the splintering process, as the original, straight tree-trunk from which the branches emerge. The phenomenology of religion sees this tree trunk as one splinter group among others, which, in order to distinguish itself from the other Christian denominations, has to give itself a complicated title: Roman Catholic.

But it is not only in phenomenology that the position becomes clouded: even theology is confused, because the branches contain much living sap from the original root-complex and trunk; thus they bear flowers and fruits that are undeniably part of the Christian totality. So we have a paradoxical situation: the Catholica finds that things that are fundamentally hers, but which she has somehow forgotten or inadequately realized, are exhibited—to her shame—by other Christian communities (Theo Drama IV, Part IV, C, 1).

Some interesting points here. First, Balthasar makes the point that Catholicism is “forced” to give itself a distinct title within Christendom. Why? Because of splintering (obviously speaking of the reformation) that has come about within Christianity. His obvious point is that Catholicism is not one among others, but is forced to call itself one among others, which muddles the “fact” that Catholicism is “the church”.

To me though, what is even more fascinating, is Balthasar’s reference to Catholicism as a “trunk”, or a “tree”. No doubt, he is thinking of Romans 11, where Paul calls Christianity an olive tree, where Gentiles are wild branches grafted in among natural Jews. What this means is that Balthasar sees Catholicism as that great trunk, that great foundation from which all “splintered” Christianity’s get their “sap”, or “fruit”. And Protestantism is connect only insofar as it borrows elements from Catholicism. Thus, Protestantism “takes what is hers”, and in some cases uses them better than the Catholic church, “to her shame”.

So then, Protestants are saved, but only insofar as they borrow elements from Catholicism. They are saved, but “on the fringe”. Protestants are “diseased Catholics”, as Chesterton says.

Now, to be fair here, I have to say that Catholics are saved, despite some erroneous (faith and works, venial/mortal sin, authority, etc) teaching on their end. And so, in a way, I would say the exact same thing!

With that, we are left with opposing opinions of one another. Protestants think Catholics are legalistic or religious, and Catholics think Protestants are diseased! Perhaps one day we will be able to be more generous to one another, or even more unified. Time will tell.