The most favored of all Latin Church thinkers is undoubtedly Saint Thomas Aquinas. (Saint Augustine probably comes in at a close second.) From the Summa Theologiae to Tantum Ergo, Aquinas is arguably one of the most prolific writers of all time. But apart from the sheer volumne of his work, what is it that sets the Angelic Doctor so far above the rest of the field and ensures him a spot as an icon of Catholic intellectualism some seven centuries after his death?
At this point, most would launch into a discussion of “faith and reason,” the doctrine of transubstantiation, or something like that. Those are worthy topics; and if you want to read about them, go here or here.
For my part, I’ll tell you this: Thomas Aquinas is a timeless figure because he was an awesome philosopher. And that’s the bottom line.
The thirteenth century was a tough time to be a friar – and this was especially true if you were also a regent master at the University of Paris. While economic conditions might have surpassed those of a serf, defending the teachings of the Faith against pagan influences was no laughing matter. Everything from the existence of God to the doctrine of creation was up for grabs. (And lest you think that defending the necessity of creation is a cakewalk, I suggest a contest in the combox to see who can come up with the best argument – for or against! If you want to cheat, here’s Aquinas’ answer…)
Playfulness aside, Thomas’ real claim to fame – and the subsequent popularity of his teachings – came as a result of his revolutionary approach to studying God. For centuries, a debate had swirled regarding whether or not God was within or outside the study of metaphysics (i.e., natural knowledge about the immaterial world). Aristotle confusingly thought both; Avicenna and Averroes, two Islamic philosophers, warred over the issue; and other mediaevals came down across the board. In the end, Aquinas’ theory split the difference – and for that reason it’s worth a quick look.
The basic idea behind Thomas’ theory of knowing God is based on cause and effect: we experience the world, and the world must have been caused, so God must be that cause. But whether or not we can properly study God (or, to put it differently, whether we can know things about him) based on this relationship is tricky. We seem to be able to know he’s a cause of things; but can we say anything else?
Aquinas proposes that God is not within the subject of metaphysics – siding with Averroes (and maybe Aristotle). But he admits that we can study God naturally (i.e., without revelation) as a principle of metaphysics. In short, this means that while we can name God things like First Cause, Creator, and Being Itself, we could never discover hidden mysteries like the Trinity or the hypostatic union on our own. In other words, we can come to know God without revelation only insofar as he exemplifies perfections in the created world, but not more.
Thomas’ doctrine of knowing and studying God was a watershed in affording a new foundation to consider the intersection of reason, faith, and revelation. By attributing to human understanding the capacity to know God – but by limiting that knowledge to simple concepts – Aquinas preserved the doctrine of transcendence while at the same time defending what was necessary for man to be responsible for his own growth in holiness. Moreover, by adopting and reconciling the teachings of the pagan and Muslim philosophers in his own system, he demonstrated the primacy of reason in the search for truth – and this includes the search for God.