Essay / Theology

Why Protestants Should Read Thomas Aquinas (4: Big Thoughts)

The fourth and final benefit of reading Thomas Aquinas (see the first, second, and third in previous posts) is that Thomas is a master of thinking big thoughts. There are only a handful of theologians in the history of the church who can think so big and teach you to do likewise. So while Thomas Aquinas is not the only person qualified to be your guide into the vast stretches of Christian doctrine, he’s one of the best in a very small group. If you ignore Thomas, you decrease your odds of seeing the largest vistas of Christian theology.

“Big” is a metaphor for a certain kind of intellectual capaciousness and ampleness. Here are four instances of how Thomas thought big and can teach you to do likewise.

1. Synthesis instead of mere critique. While we moderns specialize in breaking down ideas into their component parts, the masters of the high middle ages had the opposite strength: They excelled at putting ideas together and building up larger masses of interconnected ideas. Again, where we are strong at critically testing, refuting, and falsifying anything that doesn’t meet the standards of rationality, the medievals were strong at finding the bits of truth in every proposition and harmonizing them with their own thought. My point is not to scold modern thought for being itself and having particular strengths and weaknesses, but to point out what we need to import from other ages: the power of synthesis.

The scholastic theologians of the high middle ages, and Thomas chief among them, also liked to win intellectual fights. But they did so by out-synthesizing each other. They didn’t win by dismantling their opponents’ arguments so much as by outflanking them. If you built a house of thought, Thomas Aquinas would not tear it down: He would build a Gothic cathedral around it and assign your cute little house to its proper place as a side chapel somewhere along the back part of the north transept. He would put you in your place by out-synthesizing you. It’s a good model for intellectual engagement, and one that doesn’t come naturally to moderns or postmoderns.

2. All Roads Lead to Thomas Aquinas. Because of his intellectual style of out-flanking and out-synthesizing everybody, the theology of Thomas Aquinas ended up taking in all the best ideas that had gone before. There is certainly such a thing as a recognizably Thomist school of thought (and particular sub-types within it), but Thomas metabolized so many influences that his thought is a kind of epitome of the “perennial philosophy” of the entire Western intellectual tradition. Plato and Augustine are in there, with Aristotle and John of Damascus in the mix. Thomas was a philosophical omnivore. As a result, if you come to understand him, you have come to understand a comprehensive overview of western thought down to 1274.

3. Being as Being. This is an idea so big it doesn’t even seem like an idea. Taking the measure of all of Thomas’ thought at the highest level, you have to try to do justice to his focus on being. Yes, being. The fancy word for a doctrine of being is ontology, and Thomas is constantly working out his ideas with a strongly-stated ontology in the background. For those of us who are not professional philosophers (and hardly even devoted amateurs), most of our thoughts can be stated pretty clearly without having to tie them to an ontology, or a position on what being is. “What being is.” What is the is-ness of what is, what being is it that being has, and what does being do to be be-ing? I am strongly inclined to avoid these questions. But the entire history of philosophy is not so inclined. And Thomas Aquinas has a remarkable ability to focus his attention on… being; an idea so general that most of us can’t frame a specific thought about it. At some point in our lives, we all need a little ontology. Protestant theology in particular falls short of its calling if it never rises to the level of posing its main questions against the background of ontology. Thomas is the greatest guide I’ve found along this path.

4. Flowing Out and Returning Home. Finally, a more specific example of one of Thomas’ big thoughts: His entire Summa Theologiae is organized on the grand scheme of two subjects: God, and everything else in light of God. So there are two dynamics at work in his system. First, he describes God and everything flowing out from God. Then, he describes how moral creatures return to God by way of being perfected in the virtues. Like most things in the Summa, this is an ancient idea, dating back to the first neoplatonists (and although Thomas is fundamentally Aristotelian, he never turns his back on Plato… he incorporates him). It is the exitus of creation and its reditus to God. Part I of the Summa is the outflowing, and Part II is the returning. What marks the turning point between the two? Christ, whose work in all its historical detail and churchly implications is discussed in Part III of the Summa.

This is the final benefit of reading Thomas Aquinas. To read him is to learn how to do theology in the company of big thoughts. And thinking those big thoughts with Thomas is an education, because as Augustine of Hippo said, “Really great things, when discussed by little men, can usually make such men grow big.” (Augustine, Contra Academicus I.ii.6)

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