Faithful Through the Ages - Friday, February 21, 2014

Thomas Aquinas - Dumb Ox for the Ages

Quote: "Hold firmly that our faith is identical with that of the ancients. Deny this, and you dissolve the unity of the Church."

Regarded today as the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224 - 1274) was viewed with skepticism in his own day. Born of nobility in a castle situated south of Rome, he was educated at a local Benedictine school from age five. At sixteen he entered the University of Naples, planning to become a Dominican monk. Horrified, his family kidnapped him, tempted him with a prostitute, and called on the archbishop of Naples for support. But after more than a year of captivity, they realized that their efforts failed. His mother intervened and helped her strong-willed son to escape. Still a teenager, he joined the Dominicans.

His brilliant mind impressed his superiors, who arranged to have him study in Cologne with Albertus Magnus, the greatest Dominican scholar of the day. During this time the hulking youth acquired the nickname, "Dumb Ox," but Albertus defended him, reportedly saying: "You call him 'a dumb ox,' but I declare before you that he will yet bellow so loud in doctrine that his voice will resound through the whole world." His influence on Aquinas was profound, and when Albertus transferred to Paris, Aquinas accompanied him. After completing his studies in Paris, Aquinas returned to Cologne to teach and write.

After teaching at Cologne, Aquinas relocated to the University of Paris, where he continued to pursue his education and teaching. Beginning in 1260 and until his death in 1274, he traveled throughout Europe, preaching and teaching and consulting. He performed service for the pope and for the Dominican Order. Amid his other duties, he wrote obsessively, his works eventually filling some twenty large volumes. His magnum opus was Summa Theologica, the most comprehensive treatise on theology ever written, acclaimed more for its sheer volume and breadth than for its originality. Not venturing into uncharted terrain, Aquinas cited authorities and sought to harmonize contrasting views.

Christian scholars would later come to cite Thomas Aquinas as "the theologian" as easily as Aquinas cited Aristotle as "the philosopher." More than presenting merely an objective encyclopedia of theological positions, Aquinas took a solid stance, and his work serves as a standard for correct doctrine. Because of his heavy dependence on Aristotle, Aquinas was strongly criticized after his death by other theologians, including William of Ockham and Duns Scotus, who recognized the inherent contradictions in revelation and reason.

Lofty matters of metaphysics comprise only a portion of Summa Theologica. Among down-to-earth matters included in his tome is a lengthy discussion of sex, specifically as it relates to sin. In discussing unnatural vice (masturbation, sodomy, and bestiality), Aquinas asks whether this is the greatest of such sins. His affirmative answer is not surprising in light of his marriage of theology and natural science. What is against nature is against God.

The range of topics that Aquinas addresses in his thousands of pages of writing is astounding. In fact, according to the testimony of one of his closest associates, he would sometimes dictate to three or four secretaries at a time on different subjects, from memory rather than from notes or manuscripts. When stumped on a particular theological conundrum, he would pause to go into deep meditation and prayer and then return to the topic with clarity.

Aquinas, who proved the existence of God with "Five Ways," found God most real in a vision. He had experienced visions earlier in life, but a vision near the end of his life affected him so profoundly that he set aside his writing. His closest aide pleaded with him to take up his pen again. "I cannot," he confided. "Such things have been revealed to me that what I have written seems but straw." The vision has physical consequences as well, causing some to speculate that he may have had a stroke or a mental breakdown. Some time later he was injured while riding a donkey and died soon after.

Recognized as a great scholar during his lifetime, Aquinas continued to be revered after his death. In 1323 he was canonized a saint by Pope John XXII. Then in 1879 Pope Leo XIII declared that his writings represent official Catholic teaching, though not so authoritative as to be above challenge.

Today's reading is from Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church by Ruth Tucker. © 2010 by Zondervan. Used with permission. All rights reserved. The book's title must be included when sharing the above content on social media.

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