By Abbey, April 2014
Before he was even born, Thomas Aquinas was predicted to be a great learner, teacher, and preacher. This is what a hermit told Theodora, Thomas’ mother.
Thomas Aquinas was born in Italy around 1225, the youngest of eight siblings. His parents, though a count and countess, were not upper nobility.
At five years old, as per custom, young Thomas was sent to an Abbey in Monte Cassino to be taught by Benedictine monks. He puzzled his professors by repeatedly asking “What is God?” He was a diligent and quick learner and his teachers were impressed.
When the monastery became a site of military conflict, Thomas was removed by his parents and sent to Naples to continue his studies. Here he was most likely introduced to the works of Aristotle, which inspired some of his own works later.
Thomas Aquinas was also thrown together with the Benedictine Order, which followed the Rule of Benedict of Nursia. Against the wishes of his family, he wanted to join the Order. Instead of letting that happen, some of Thomas’ brothers kidnapped him and he was locked away for a year. His family tried to dissuade him from his intents – going so far as so hire a prostitute to seduce him, which didn’t work – but eventually his mother softened, and helped him escape out a window to some Benedictine friends below.
Through his confinement, Thomas Aquinas studied hard, and those in the Benedictine order were pleased with the progress he had made on his own.
He continued to study with the Benedictine monks at the University of Paris through the 1240’s and in 1250, he was ordained as a priest. His fellow students thought him dumb because he was quiet. Albertus Magnus, a Dominican scholar, said, “You call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world." He was right.
Thomas Aquinas earned his Doctorate in Theology and taught theology at the University of Paris. He started writing books at this time. His life from this point on was immersed in traveling, teaching, writing, speaking, and preaching.
During the Middle Ages, many theologians and philosophers were trying to reconcile the two studies to each other. Obtaining knowledge through revelation from God or from evidence learned by the senses seemed to be at odds with each other.
There were two types of theology: Monastic theology – believing in order to understand – and Scholastic theology – understanding in order to believe. Thomas Aquinas was part of the latter group. He believed that theology and philosophy both came from God, and therefore, could be reconciled to each other – a revolutionary thought.
Thomas Aquinas argued that God’s existence could be proven in five ways:
· By movement. There can’t be an infinite chain of movement, someone must have started movement at some point, and that someone is God.
· Identifying God as the cause of everything by observing cause and effect.
· There are many things that exist, but are not necessary. If everything were unnecessary, there would be nothing, so there must be a necessary being that stands on its own, and is the cause for other things to exist. This is God.
· By noticing elements of perfection in beings and things, coming to the conclusion that there must be a supreme, perfect being: God.
· Without God, we wouldn’t have intelligence. Everything without awareness takes orders from something that is aware.
Aristotelianism – Aristotle’s philosophy – and it’s more radical form of Averroism were rising and spreading quickly in the late 1260’s. This was a worry for Christians, as Aristotle’s teaching did not go along with the Bible. In 1270, the bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, condemned thirteen Aristotelian propositions and excommunicated from the church anyone who supported the heretic.
Although Thomas Aquinas did study Aristotle, and write several commentaries on Aristotle’s works on natural philosophy (a precursor to science and physics), he was against Averroism.
In 1272, Thomas Aquinas stopped teaching at the University of Paris and moved back to Naples, Italy, where he continued to teach theology.
His theological writings, however, ceased in 1273, after he had some kind of spiritual encounter which he did not speak or write about. When a man urged him to continue writing, Thomas Aquinas replied, “I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value.”
He was on his way to France in the early weeks of 1274, when he fell ill along the road, and was taken to a monastery. Sensing that his time was near, Aquinas refused to be taken to a nearby castle, saying, “If the Lord wishes to take me away, it is better that I be found in a religious house than in the dwelling of a layperson." His final words were Psalm 131:14 and he died in March 1274.
In 1277, Etienne Tempier, still bishop of Paris, ordered a more severe condemnation on the works of Aristotle and Aristotle’s followers. Tempier made a list of 219 propositions which he believed violated the omnipotence of God. Among these, were 20 propositions of Thomas Aquinas.
Though his image was stained for awhile after this condemnation, Thomas Aquinas’ reputation has since risen above it, and he is today much studied in Catholic circles. He was made patron saint over all Catholic academics in 1880. His unfinished Summa Theologica is especially well-known and studied.
Though he had some bumps in his career – namely the kidnapping by his family – Thomas Aquinas fulfilled the prediction the hermit gave to his mother. Thomas Aquinas was, indeed, a great learner, speaker, writer, theologian, and preacher, whose influence extends even to present day.
www.newadvent.org, Catholic Encyclopedia: St. Thomas Aquinas
www.biography.com, St. Thomas Aquinas
Wikipedia.org, Thomas Aquinas
Upon This Rock lecture series, lecture number 10, “The Nature of Medieval Theology”
Plato.Standford.edu, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Saint Thomas Aquinas
World Book Encyclopedia, Aquinas, Thomas.
Boy am I glad I don't have to study philosophy! It was difficult enough to try and figure out a plain-english way of putting Thomas Aquinas' five ways to prove God's existence. I still couldn't explain to you what they are.
Church history is a really fascinating topic. There are so many interesting people! And interesting heresies! And interesting splits in the church! It's crazy.
Right now I'm learning about Christianity in the Middle Ages. All sorts of Germanic tribes were invading and settling in Europe (throughout the first 1000 years of AD but specifically) in the 11th century. The Roman Catholic church sent monks to spread the gospel of Jesus and really, all it took to spread the word, was the ear of the leader of whatever tribe they were visiting. Over and over again this happened. Actually, all throughout history.
Take Moses for example... God chose him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and he did. He was their leader, and they all believed in God.
Then, in 300AD, Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity and from then on, Christianity was the religion of the Roman Empire.
Around about the 1100's, the wife of the leader of the Franks was a Christian. She told her husband about God and eventually he converted. All of the people became Christians too, because their leader did.
Part of me is a little wary of this method of "mass conversion." I don't think that it necessarily changes the heart. I think it's more of a sheep mentality - following the crowd. But at the same time, it astonishes me! Whole nations converting to Christianity! That's crazy! The leader of a country becoming Christian!
Something else that absolutely baffles me... Often, in the first 1000 years AD, Christianity was often a political maneuver. There was absolutely no separation of church and state. Emperor Justinian in the 500's thought the mission of a pious emperor was "the maintenance of the Christian faith in its purity and the protection of the Holy Catholoic and Apostolic church from any disturbance."
How crazy is that?! Just image if our nation had that sort of mindset now!
(The Constitution, by the way, says nothing about separation of church and state. I think a good many people need to read it and see what it REALLY says... of course, that's a topic for another time.)
Anyway... I'm enjoying church history very much and am learning a lot of where the Christian church came from!
Live long and prosper.