You Should Know Thomas Aquinas

If you are a Christian of some theological understanding and you do not know your way around Thomas Aquinas, I can tell you something true about yourself: you are missing out.

Aquinas? Wasn’t he a catholic? Yes and no. I can tell you something from experience: in the USA, the Catholics who are enthusiastic about Thomas Aquinas are the good ones. You should get to know them. You will find there is a lot any religious conservative has in common with them in our days: they are supernaturalists, they are serious about their theology, they function comfortably with pre-modern philosophical categories, and many other such things. You do not, for example, have to explain nominalism to them. Of course, the whole thing is more complicated than I’m portraying it here; but it is in general true.

Yes, he is a theologian a good Catholic can be enthusiastic about (and a bad one not so much). So there is that. But he lived in the 13th century, and you can’t just classify him according to events that took place 300 years after he lived. He was part of Western Christianity, which at that point only existed under the pope, was in continuity with the Christianity that came down from the Apostles themselves, and from which the concerns and impulses of the late middle ages, the renaissance, and the Reformers arose. There are whole books nowadays devoted to exploring exactly how much of Aquinas there was in, for example, a man such as John Owen. Books, not just a cloud of ephemeral journal articles.

What is so great about Thomas Aquinas? What is so great is how much he thought about, and thought about carefully and well. He thought about virtue, he thought about sin, he thought about pleasure and he thought about law. In all these areas, and more, if you consult him, you will be rewarded with worthwhile insights. He is the kind of person you can rely on at least to get started correctly on a problem. I have been studying his explanation of transubstantiation, and here are two things I learned. Even though I don’t believe in the transformation he describes, I understand his reasoning. His reasoning depends on certain distinctions one has to make, and these distinctions are real and useful, and now I understand these better. The second thing I learned was how it feels to get an argument about something whose premises you don’t accept, in this case premises resting on belief. Aquinas believes something about the Eucharist I do not, and so his reasoning on that basis is to me both ingenious and strange. I am the unbeliever in this instance, and now I have a better idea of what it is like to hear such things.

I intend more on Aquinas in future posts. But before I end, let me add one more incentive to interest in Aquinas. The things that we Protestants agree on with Aquinas outweigh the things that we do not. If I can learn in disagreement, as I did above, how much more in agreement?


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