Essay / Theology

Why Protestants Should Read Thomas Aquinas (3: Skill in Reasoning)

Here is the third benefit of studying Thomas Aquinas (see also benefits one and two): He can help you become skillful in reasoning. No matter what you read by him, and no matter where you start reading, as long as you reel off a few pages and pay attention to them, you will see a conspicuous display of intellectual virtue which you can begin to imitate.

The basic unit out of which the Summa Theologia is made is called an Article. There are 2,652 of these articles in the Summa, and they all follow a careful structure. Thomas proposes a question, and then attends to three or four arguments about it. Next he brings up some counter-evidence recommending the opposite point of view, which he explains more fully and establishes as the right answer. Finally, he looks back to the opening arguments and explains how each of them should be refuted or understood in a larger context.

This article structure, repeated over 2500 times, is a great tutorial in how to think. It is discursive reasoning, in which Thomas takes you on a journey to find the answers. It makes a great difference that Thomas doesn’t just lay out true propositions one after another. Instead, he begins each article with a set of plausible wrong answers and leads the mind through the experience of finding the truth. Students in a hurry to finish up their assigned reading in the Summa are quick to learn that you can skim the opening statements and jump to the middle, where Thomas’ own answer is stated. That first voice you hear in every article (“It seems that the Holy Spirit is not a person, because it is described as a power…”) is doomed to be refuted half a page later, after all. But Thomas didn’t write the Summa to help you get an A on the theology test. He wrote it for beginners in theology, to disciple their minds in an apprenticeship program in thinking theologically. The best learning happens when you pay close attention to the discursive development of the argument.

The skill of entertaining objections to your own beliefs, and of making a habit out of doing that as a part of your own intellectual development, is a skill that will put mental muscles on your mind. You don’t have to worry about running into somebody who disagrees with you, if you’ve developed the ability to test everything within the confines of your own mind or your own learning community.

The way the articles are arranged also contributes to gaining the skill of reasoning. Often an article will ask one extreme question, and then the next article will ask a question at the opposite extreme. For example, somewhere in part 3 of the Summa, the questioner asks why Jesus didn’t die for the sins of the world immediately after Adam fell. Thomas gives some good reasons for the long delay between the fall and the redemption, which leads the questioner to pose the next article-opener: Then why didn’t Jesus wait until the end of the world to redeem it? The first question wants it too soon, the next one wants it too late. The truth is in the middle between these two extreme errors. When Thomas patiently guides his readers through those extremes, he is doing what he does best: A Christian adaptation of the wisdom of Aristotle.

The structure of an article is a basic unit of clear thought for Thomas. You can improve your reasoning skills about any subject by submitting it to the discipline of articular structure. The case for reading Aristotle can be cast in the form of an article from the Summa:

It seems that Protestants should not read Thomas Aquinas.

First, he is so darn Catholic. As the official theologian of Roman Catholicism according to Leo XIII, he teaches many things that Protestants rightly reject. So we should not read him.

Second, he is from the dark ages, when knowledge was nearly extinguished, and we have made great progress in all areas since then. So we should not read him.

Third, he is a rationalist who attempts to think the very thoughts of God instead of simply believing God’s word.

Fourth, he has only one name: Thomas. Aquino is his home town, so his name is really Tom, the guy from Aquino. But nobody with one one name is to be trusted, such as Cher, or Bono, or Shakira. So we should not read him.

On the other hand, the Apostle says, “all things are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”

I answer that Thomas is a teacher of Christian truth, and that while he teaches some things which a Protestant will, by definition, dissent from, he is nevertheless a helpful guide on most subjects. When the Apostle says “all things are yours,” he is specifically referring to the variety of teachings from many different Christian teachers (himself, Apollos, etc.). Therefore whatever Thomas says is the property of all Christians if it is true. It belongs to us as we belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.

On the first point, we do not have to accept those teachings of his which are distinctively sectarian, marking him as belonging to the Roman sect rather than to the universal church. He says much on the many subjects about where Protestants and Catholics agree. So we should read him.

On the second point, the dark ages are only as dark as the ignorance of the one who calls them dark. Progress is something that makes sense for evaluating technology, but not for evaluating the revealed truths of scripture, or such transcendental attributes of being as unity, goodness, truth, or beauty. In these most important areas, there is no progress that leaves behind the starting-point. So we should read him.

On the third point, it is one thing to try to think God’s unrevealed thoughts with him, and another thing to try to think God’s revealed thoughts after him. Thomas does the latter when he seeks to show the reasons for a belief. So we should read him.

The fourth point does not require a response. God has one name. So we should read Thomas Aquinas.

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