St. Thomas Aquinas 

and the spirit of Theology



"I believe that the chief task of my life 

is that of expressing God 

in all my thought and in all my feelings

(Contra Gentiles, L 1, c. 3)



This beautiful phrase, a rare lightning-flash of personal expression, sums up the entire existence and mission of St. Thomas Aquinas. All the huge intellectual resources that he brought to his works (which fill 2 CDs and amount to more than 500 million words), all his intense, almost superhuman activity inteaching, preaching, speculative thought and writing, have a single, fundamental, rationale: the expression of God.

If Plato and Aristotle characterise the philosophy of Antiquity, and if, in modern, contemporary philosophy, Cartesian and Hegelian thought provide comparable milestones, the place of honour in medieval times must be given to Aquinas alone. This man, during his short life (c.1225 – March 7 1274) showed himself capable of philosophical and theological works such as to constitute an epochal turning-point, as truly in philosophy as in theology.

He was born the fourth son of Landolfo, count of Aquino, at Roccasecca, near Aquino, a castle close to the border of the kingdom of Sicily and in close contact with the papal territories. It had been intended that he should become Abbot of nearby Montecassino; however, in a surprising decision, he chose instead to embrace the new Mendicant order of Dominican friars. His talent for acute speculative thought was soon in evidence, and he went to Paris to study under the direction of St. Albertus Magnus, eventually gaining the chair of Dominican theology.

The medieval intellectual spirit, which operates between Reason and Faith, finds in him its perfect synthesis. His theology is in fact a balanced system which mediates between Aristotelianism, neo-Platonism, readings of the sacred pages and knowledge of the Greek and Latin Fathers, expounding his thought, not via the system of principle, development and conclusion familiar in modern thought, but by wholeheartedly embracing the Scholastic Method. His works are therefore subdivided into Questions (Quaestiones) and Articles (Articulos). They include powerful works such as the Golden Chain (La Catena Aurea), Commentaries on the Gospels, or the Summe -Contra Gentiles and Theologiae, and less extensive writings such as the famous Concerning Being and Essence in which he considers the metaphysical bases of Being, and in so doing makes his most original contribution to philosophical thought – one which has had a vast number of followers, up to and including our own time (Gilson and Maritain, but also, in some respects, Heidegger).

St. Thomas also took part in the much-debated issues of his day: the role of the Mendicant Orders, or of speculative (Aristotelian) philosophy in relation to theology (known as sacred doctrine). He was also involved in the composition of the Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi, instituted by Pope Urban after the Miracle of Bolsena, which is still celebrated today. A man completely integrated into his own times, then, but with a single desire in his heart : to express God. With him, theology makes a hugely significant leap, and begins to be seen as scientia, insofar as it find its principles in the science of God and the saints, as shown in the famous First Question in the Summa Theologiae. He is not afraid to confront the questions and great themes of the Christian faith, even those most hostile to reason,  grounding these on the principle that Faith does not destroy Nature, but brings it to perfection . By this means (and it was considered scandalous at the time), he also considers the problem of demonstrating the existence of God, capable of resolution in 5 ways (the Five Ways). But his originality remains always in his idea of rapport with God, a rapport of friendship and communion, in that it is fitting to share fellowship with friends. Therefore, human knowledge of God is divisible into three aspects: 

1) Knowledge through sense-experience (apofatica) - God cannot be known through the senses, insofar as knowledge signifies possession of the object known and a mere creature cannot possess and know directly One who is himself Essential Being. Through reliance on the senses we had better say therefore that God is not (Apofatic or negative theology).

2) Knowledge based on Reason (philosophy)- 1)      Through contemplation of the natural world and reasoning from observation of it, the philosophers of Antiquity, such as Plato and Aristotle, arrived at the understanding that a Supreme Being exists, that there is an Idea or Cause which stands before all other things, insofar as the ordered hierarchy of ideas and causes cannot simply extend back to infinity.  Thus we agree to call by the name of God the Essence that is the principle of all things, because no thing can have existence prior to its cause. This supreme Essence is one, is goodness, is life, is eternal Substance and perfect Idea of being. In a climate of polytheism, the Ancient philosophers arrived by these means at an assertion of Monotheism. For St. Thomas, the significant point is that Reason can with its own forces know God, in however imperfect and confused a manner : in other words,  a perpetually external knowledge.

3) Spiritual knowledge (theology)- 1)      But if God reveals himself to Man as truly ‘that which He is’ (‘I am that I am’), entering into a relationship of communion and friendship with him, then Man has a much more complete and true knowledge, insofar as God Himself speaks of Himself. This encompasses an internal, spiritual knowledge, which becomes by analogy an interpersonal knowledge. Indeed, how can we know a person unless he freely reveals himself to us? And how much more valuable is this analogous case of knowledge of God? Now God has revealed Himself in Christ. His revelation here is freely given, true and complete, in that he is revealed as Father, and as Jesus the Son, in communion with the Holy Spirit. Justly St. Thomas therefore divides the Summa Contra Gentiles in two parts: Of One God (three books) where he reflects on that which we can know of God by Reason : his existence, goodness, singularity, his Being as the principal and end of all things. In the last book, Of the Triune God, St. Thomas reviews and reflects on  all the mysteries of faith - Trinity, Incarnation, Resurrection, Last Judgement - which are unknowable except through revelation. These mysteries are however convenient (fitting, appropriate), that is, compatible with reason.

The spirit of theology is therefore delineated in the mystical communion of the theologian with God, in which the theologian must himself achieve transcendent union with his proper object: the object (subjectum) of theology is God, and thus the object, God himself, is slowly and rationally revealed within His great plan of salvation, conceived before, and lasting until, all eternity. This plan, understood intuitively by the great Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus, has a single harmonious rationale, and it unfolds itself in the movement of emanation and return. Here the entirely medieval influence of Pseudo-Dionysius, St. Maximus the Confessor and John Scotus Eriugena also enters, and is manifest in St. Thomas in the planning of the Summa Theologiae. This is divided into three parts : the creation of all things and of Man, the return to God by means of personal, moral choice, and Christ, the Way back to God the Father.

This teaching, crystal clear in content, resounded in the halls of the Sorbonne in a new and astonishing way, in that it synthesized and re-elaborated in an original manner the most diverse sources, and at the same time the most important theological understanding and insights of the time. Guglielmo di Tocco, who was servant, confessor, companion, friend and first biographer of Thomas, enthusiastically emphasises this:

In his lessons he introduced new premises, resolved questions in a new way and with greater clarity, with new arguments. Consequently, he enlightened those who listened with new propositions, expounded via a new method; we cannot doubt that God had illuminated him with a new light: in fact, can anyone ever teach or write new ideas, if he has not received from God a new inspiration?

The fundamental innovation is this: the movement of emanation and return is not merely rationally plausible (the plane of philosophy), but also spiritually plausible (the plane of theology), in that the eternal generation of the Word corresponds with the emanation, whilst the return corresponds with the procession of the Holy Spirit. Therefore philosophy acquires independence of theology, in a manner contrary to Augustinian theology, because it is based on the rationality of God’s plan and of His life: revelation ad intra and revelation ad extra are in harmony and equilibrium so that man may succeed in achieving cognisance of God. In a period that is most often considered Fideist – an ‘Age of Faith’, St. Thomas therefore frees philosophical investigation from confusion with theological inquiry, insofar as it is rationalised and in syntony (harmonious concord) with that which is revealed.

The merit of St. Thomas, of which a great deal more could be said, is then that he was able to define the spirit of theology in a manner according precisely with the methods acquired from the pagan philosophers. He did not reject the innovations that came from the understanding of Aristotelian metaphysics and from knowledge of the Arab and Hebrew philosophers, but reworked all the genuine intuitions that these great thinkers had produced into a new understanding, because, if anyone speaks truly, the Holy Spirit is speaking in him. In sum, if today he could see how culture has been diffused and disseminated across the Internet, he would without doubt have greeted this with enthusiasm.



Bibliography                      ahead                     back                  summary