Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas

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Saint Thomas Aquinas (l. 1225-1274, also known as the "Ox of Sicily" and the "Angelic Doctor") was a Dominican friar, mystic, theologian, and philosopher, all at once. Although he lived a relatively short life, dying at age 49, Thomas occupied the 13th century with a colossal presence. Physically, Thomas was known to be a very large man. Mentally, his mind was shown to be grand and expansive through his writings and speeches. Thomas wrote and lectured prolifically, traveling across Western Europe by personal request of the Pope as well as to distinguished universities.

Yet as well-connected as Thomas was to rich and powerful people, he opted for the simple life of a begging friar at the age of 18. So, while he taught and researched at prestigious academic institutions, Thomas lived among the poor throughout his life. In his philosophical writings, Aristotle took center stage. Thomas ultimately sought to reconcile faith and reason during an age when others argued that this was impossible. Aristotle’s ancient Greek philosophy served Thomas in this endeavor. Still, the philosophical worldview produced by Thomas went beyond Aristotle, incorporating Jesus Christ and the Catholic perspective. By the time that Thomas died, in 1274, he had left philosophical and religious legacies through his writings and actions which persist to this day.

Early Life

Thomas Aquinas was born in the Sicilian castle of Roccasecca (present-day Lazio) in 1225. Even though Thomas made a name for himself throughout the academic and religious world, he was born into a family that already carried a noble history. The family of Aquino was distinguished by their military service. Thomas's father, Landulf, was a knight who loyally served the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Moreover, the Aquino family had plans for Thomas to maintain their high-stakes political connections by becoming an abbot, following in the footsteps of Thomas' uncle Sinibald.

The life that Thomas entered into was radically different & perhaps embarrassing to the wealthy & powerful expectations of the Aquino family.

Thomas's family was left astounded by his decision to join a mendicant order, and they tried desperately to make him change his mind. Not only did the Aquino family involve the Pope, but they arranged for Thomas to be kidnapped on a journey with his Dominican brothers. Then they locked Thomas up in the Castle of Monte San Giovanni Campano, hoping he would relent to their wishes. Throughout all of this, Thomas refused to become an abbot or to renounce his dedication to the Dominican order. Events escalated further when Thomas's brothers (who were also responsible for his kidnapping) arranged for a prostitute to tempt Thomas into sinning. Thomas firmly refused, chasing the prostitute out of his room.

Dominican and Franciscan friars were new groups to the medieval church, and their lifestyles were quite different than those of traditional monks. Friars lived lives of poverty, replacing traditional silk robes with the rougher and cheaper clothing of peasants. They also gave up high-class political life for day-to-day experiences among laborers and homeless people. So, the life that Thomas entered into as a teenager was radically different, and perhaps in some ways embarrassing, to the wealthy and powerful expectations of the Aquino family.

School Life

Thomas attended school at a young age and excelled in his academic work. From one account of his life, Thomas shocked his instructors when he suddenly and bluntly asked "What is God?" during a lesson at the monastery of Monte Cassino (Chesterton, 27). Clearly, Thomas’s deep thoughts began at a young age. However, this was not evident to many of his fellow students. It was also in school that Thomas earned the nickname of the "Dumb Ox." Students called him the "Dumb Ox" because Thomas was incredibly silent during class and of course tall and bulky. However, his peers turned out to err in their assessment of Thomas's intellectual abilities.

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After Thomas's successful struggle to become a Dominican friar, he became the student of Albert the Great (also known as Albertus Magnus). Under Albert’s guidance, Thomas flourished. Thomas traveled with Albert to Cologne, Paris, and back to Italy as they studied, lectured, and wrote for academies and the Church. At one point, Albert reflected "we have called him the Dumb Ox, but he will bellow so loud that the sound of his voice will be heard throughout the whole world" (Hourly History, 18) Indeed, Thomas's philosophical and theological works would have a great impact upon the world during his life and into the future, as he dealt with the controversies and riddles of the Middle Ages.

Thomas first encountered the works of Aristotle in Naples. He was still in his teens during this time and had just left the abbey of Monte Cassino after Frederick II (l. 1194-1250) occupied the area with soldiers. Thomas's schooling in Naples was not under the control of the Catholic Church, and it was here that his liberal arts education was greatly expanded. Thomas studied the fields of astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, rhetoric, and music. The fact that Thomas studied both in the abbey of Monte Cassino and then Naples during his youth was important because between these places of learning he became immersed in the ideas of the Bible as well as the philosophical concepts of the liberal arts. This combination of religious and secular education would prove fateful as Thomas reached his scholarly prime.

Controversies of the Time

The controversies of Thomas's time revolved around power and knowledge. The Popes of the 13th century found their authority increasingly challenged by the power of the Holy Roman Empire, while the Catholic religious faith battled against new and challenging ideas about science and reason. Pope Gregory IX and Pope Innocent IV battled against Emperor Frederick II, and Thomas's family personally experienced this decades-long struggle. For example, Thomas's father directly served Frederick II while one of Thomas's brothers, Rinaldo, was martyred by Frederick for his loyalty to the Church. When Thomas committed himself to the Dominican Order, he made it clear that his loyalties were with the Pope and not the Holy Roman Emperor.

Not only was there a general conflict between religion & philosophy at the time but also between two philosophies, namely, Plato's & Aristotle’s.

There were also academic and religious controversies that Thomas did not shy away from in his oral debates and writings. When Thomas was reaching his prime as a scholar, Aristotle was just being introduced to the Western world. Aristotle’s writings were preserved in Arabic from the East, and soon Latin translations of Aristotle were produced. The Catholic Church originally opposed Aristotle’s work, banning it from being taught by religious institutions. Moreover, there were groups of people within the Catholic Church who held Augustian philosophical views, relating much of their ideas to Plato. So not only was there a general conflict between religion and philosophy at the time but also between two philosophies, namely, Plato's and Aristotle’s. Ultimately, Thomas would bring Aristotle under the umbrella of Catholic thinking making the Greek thinker not only accepted within religious schools but celebrated and passionately studied.

Still, it was no easy task that Thomas set out for himself. Aristotle was not controversial without reason, in the Catholic Church. Some Medieval scholars argued that Aristotle’s philosophy went against the Christian religion. Overall, these scholars saw a conflict between faith and reason. While faith led a Christian to believe in God, reason led someone to question or deny God. For instance, Siger of Brabant (c. 1240-1284) followed the philosophy of Averroes (1126-1198), arguing that there are two conflicting perspectives. If someone followed their reasoning, they would come to see the world in a particular way that conflicted with the beliefs espoused by the Church. Thomas passionately opposed this view, arguing that faith and reason worked together to support the one truth of God.

Thomas outlined a hierarchy of knowledge, which all fell under the ultimate God-head. For instance, if someone decided to go out and study plants using scientific and secular methods, Thomas would have approved of this. On the other hand, Thomas would have disagreed that this scientific and secular way of studying things could reveal the totality of knowledge. So, all knowledge about plants only provided a small piece of the puzzle for Thomas, and while reason might teach someone many things, it could not teach someone all things. To pursue the highest study, which according to Thomas was theology, one had to move beyond the use of science and reason to consider faith and revelation as well.


Within his philosophical explorations, Thomas discusses ethics, physics, politics, and metaphysics. Beyond strictly philosophical work, Thomas wrote biblical commentaries, prayers, poetry, and more. Throughout much of his writing, Thomas is known for his logical and open-minded style. He would often begin with a question or heretical idea, giving the opposing view a fair hearing, before thoroughly dismantling it.

A famous example of this can be read in the Summa Theologica. Within these multiple volumes, Thomas asks at one point what the proper name of God should be. In reference to the biblical story of Moses and the burning bush, some would argue that the best name for God is "He Who Is" (in Latin: Qui Est; Summa Theologica I, Q. 13, Article 11.). Before Thomas defends the name Qui Est, he makes the case that this is in fact not the best name for God. Some say that God cannot be named, others that "good" is the best name for God. After Thomas explores these opposing views, he argues that Qui Est is the best name for God by not only referring to biblical authority but also appealing to philosophical reason. Because God’s essence is existence itself, he alone merits the predicate of being or existence. This synthesis of faith and reason is partly what makes Thomas's thinking so remarkable.

Thomas's philosophical work additionally extended Aristotle’s theory about the first mover or first cause. The first mover concept argues that because things are in motion all around us in the present, we can deduce backward that there had to be some first thing in the past that set in motion all other things. Thomas showed that this thinking applied to God. Not only was God the first unmoved mover, but he was also the first cause leading to all other effects. Thomas argued that because all the things around us are contingent, or relying upon other things for their existence, there must be some non-contingent source that originally led to their reality. Another more complicated argument is Thomas's appeal to degrees or levels of existence. Because the quality of things varies, as some things are worse or better than others, there must be some perfect or best thing which provides the universal standard for all qualities of existence.

Mystical Experiences

Beyond being a philosopher, theologian, and friar, Thomas was also known as a mystic. As a mystic, he reportedly experienced visions and supernatural visitations. For example, after Thomas drove the prostitute out of his room, he was said to be visited by two angels who wrapped a cord of chastity around him. Although Thomas maintained a very quiet demeanor throughout his life, to his closest friends he would relate other mystical experiences like these.

Another story relates that Thomas was attending mass in December of 1273 when he saw something that fundamentally altered the course of his life. Whatever Thomas saw led him to say "everything I have written seems to me as straw in comparison with what I have seen" (Kerr, 19). Not only did Thomas keep to his word and refuse to write any further, but he then died a few months later, in 1274. Thomas was beginning a journey to Lyons at the command of Pope Gregory X when he fell ill and took refuge in a Fossanova monastery. In this monastery, Thomas gave his final confession and passed away.


Thomas Aquinas was granted sainthood by the Catholic Church in 1323, and he was given the title of "Angelic Doctor" in 1567. Although Thomas's works would eventually gain a foundational presence in Roman Catholic colleges, his ideas were not immediately embraced by all Catholics. Right after Thomas's death, the theology department from Paris renounced a series of philosophical claims which included much of Thomas's thinking. A well-known opponent of Thomism was Canterbury’s Archbishop Robert Kilwardby (1215-1279), who considered some of Thomas's basic views about nature and divinity almost heretical. About a decade after Thomas died, the Franciscan Order banned the Summa Theologica from those who were untrained in considering his ideas.

However, despite these antagonisms, Thomas's philosophical and theological work was eventually accepted into the church and celebrated alongside scripture. Popes Innocent VI, Urban V, Pius V, Innocent XII, Clement XII, and Benedict XIV spoke well of Thomas and his works at various points in time. Centuries after Thomas's death, in 1879, Pope Leo XIII crafted the encyclical letter Aeterni Patris which endorsed Thomistic thought as "golden wisdom" (Aeterni Patris, section 31) Pope Leo XIII (served 1878-1903) was battling with Post-Enlightenment thinking, and Thomas's philosophy was his primary weapon in this struggle. Beyond the words and actions of popes, Thomas also inspired human rights theory, put forth in the 15th and 16th centuries by Spanish Dominicans, such as Francisco de Vitoria and Bartolomé de las Casas. These Catholic friars were disturbed by the cruel conditions of Spain’s American colonies, so they sought to use Thomistic thought as a justification for human rights for the protection of indigenous peoples.

With all of these different impacts considered, Thomas's thoughts remain relevant and debated today. Colleges continue to be founded in Thomas's name too, as people are continuously inspired by Thomas's academic spirit. Notably, during the 1970s the archbishop Fulton Sheen helped to found the Thomas Aquinas College. As it has turned out, Albert the Great’s claim that this "Ox" would "bellow" for the whole world to hear was prophetic indeed.

Thomas Aquinas: Christian History Interview — He’s Our Man

In a 1974 Christianity Today article marking the 700th anniversary of Aquinas’s death, author Ronald Nash said some nice things about the deceased but ultimately judged his system of thought “unsuitable for a biblically centered Christian philosophy” and “beyond any hope of salvage.” Norman Geisler disagreed with that assessment then, and he disagrees with it now. We asked Dr. Geisler, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and author of Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal (Baker, 1991), for his evaluation of the Angelic Doctor.

You’ve studied Aquinas for 45 years now. What makes him so appealing?

He’s insightful, he’s incisive, he’s comprehensive, he’s systematic, he’s biblical, he’s devout, and he’s successful. By successful, I mean, first, how many other books are still being read 700 years later? Second, he single-handedly withstood the onslaught of intellectual Islam in the thirteenth century. He reversed the course of history.

Why isn’t Aquinas more popular with evangelicals?

Evangelicals have largely misinterpreted Aquinas, and they have placed on him views that he did not hold. Many people are concerned that he separated faith and reason, denied depravity (especially the effects of sin on the human mind), and stood for everything that “Roman Catholic” means to Protestants today. Let me take those concerns one by one.

Francis Schaeffer criticized Aquinas for giving rise to modern humanism and atheism by separating faith and reason. Aquinas would do cartwheels in his casket if he heard that!

He believed in the integration of faith and reason, not the separation. He made a distinction but no disjunction. Aquinas said that faith brings the highest kind of certainty and that reason, weak and fallen, cannot attain Christian faith.

Still, Aquinas held human reason in such high regard that some accuse him of denying depravity. He did not. He believed in original sin, he believed in the effects of sin on the mind, and he believed that the mind was so depraved that it could not know supernatural truths. God’s revealed truths could be accepted only by faith.

And then there’s the concern that Aquinas was a Roman Catholic, and we Protestants disagree with Catholicism at key points. In truth, most Protestants today could have accepted what the Roman Catholic church taught up to the time of the Reformation.

Even Martin Luther and John Calvin believed that the Roman Catholic church, up to the Council of Trent, was basically orthodox—a true church with sound fundamental doctrines as well as significant error.

Many of the Catholic beliefs that concern Protestants most were not declared dogma until long after Aquinas. For example, Aquinas denied the immaculate conception of Mary, and it was not declared dogma until 1854. Aquinas never believed in the bodily assumption of Mary, which was defined in 1950. Aquinas didn’t believe in the infallibility of the pope. That was not pronounced until 1870—600 years after Aquinas.

On the other hand, Aquinas held many beliefs associated with the Reformation. He upheld a version of sola scriptura. He believed in salvation by grace through faith—just look at his commentary on Ephesians 2:8–9.

John Gerstner, the late Calvinist theologian, went so far as to claim that Aquinas was basically a Protestant. How can we avoid the misconceptions and find the real Aquinas?

Read him! Quotes and excerpts in other people’s books don’t count, because many of his critics have taken him out of context. Get it from the horse’s mouth, or should I say the Dumb Ox’s mouth.

Aquinas is worth reading. He has stood the test of time. And even where he errs, you can learn more from the errors of a great mind than you can learn from the truths of a small mind. You can see a whole lot farther standing on the shoulders of giants.

What will people find when they read Aquinas, besides philosophy?

People are rediscovering Aquinas as a biblical exegete. He wrote some of the greatest commentaries on the Bible—no one has surpassed his commentary on the Gospels to this day. He has 10 pages on John 1:1, and 78 pages on chapter one. He culls from the Fathers, from the second century up to the thirteenth century, and weaves them together in a continuous commentary.

After all, he was a member of the Order of Preachers. They had to preach the Bible every day and go through the entire Bible in three years.

What can thinkers engaged in today’s theological and philosophical debates learn from Aquinas?

We can learn from him in the way he answered Muslim Aristotelianism. He answered it by fighting bad ideas with good ideas, by fighting the pen with the pen, not the sword. We’re not going to win the battle of ideas by the sword. We’re going to win the battle of ideas with ideas—better ones, more logical ones, more consistent ones.

Second, we can learn how important it is to understand the philosophy of the day. It’s like 1 Chronicles 12:32 says, the men of Issachar “understood the times.”

Aquinas studied the philosophy of the day, which was Aristotle. He understood it better than his opponents, and he could use it to refute opponents who misused it. We need to do the same thing in every field.

Aquinas is a tremendous example for us because, today, the basic battle is the battle for God. The only way we’re going to defend the orthodox, historic view—held by Aquinas, Augustine, the Reformers, and the creeds and councils of the church—that God knows the future infallibly, that God is eternal and unchangeable, that God even exists, is to go back to Aquinas and his great arguments.

What can Christians who aren’t theologians or philosophers learn from Aquinas?

First of all, his absolute, unconditional commitment to Christ. He was an extremely devout person. He spent hours in prayer and Bible reading and Bible study. His whole life had a biblical basis—just read his prayers.

In one Thomistic class I took at a Catholic institution, the professor would pray a brief part of one of Aquinas’ prayers before class. He would say, “Inspire us at the beginning, direct our progress, and complete the finished task within us.” Aquinas had such a succinct way of getting to the heart of an issue.

Here’s another of his prayers: “Give me, O Lord, a steadfast heart, which no unworthy affection may drag downwards give me an unconquered heart, which no tribulation can wear out give me an upright heart, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside. Bestow on me also, O Lord my God, understanding to know you, diligence to seek you, wisdom to find you, and faithfulness that may finally embrace you, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

I can’t tell you how Aquinas has enriched and changed my life, my thought. He has helped me to be a better evangelical, a better servant of Christ, and to better defend the faith that was delivered, once for all, to the saints. CH

By conversation with Norman Geisler

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #73 in 2002]

Dr. Geisler is president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and author of Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal (Baker, 1991).

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) became the primary theologian for the Roman Catholic Church, and greatly influenced the theology and thought of  many other groups, including Lutheran and Reformed, as well as others.

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In response to the increasing influence of Aristotelianism, Muslim and Jewish thought, along with scientific information that had been lost by, or was new to, the west being put forth at the University of Paris at the time, Aquinas sought to use what he called "science" to systematically answer teachings that were circulating in his day in regard to the "Christian" perspective (largely defending the current traditions and practices of Rome) using reason and "natural law," along with scripture and other writings.

Early Life

Born around 1225 in Roccasecca Castle, 8 kilometers north of Aquino (from which "Aquinas," meaning "of Aquino," comes),  in southern Italy, to aristocratic parents in an area disputed by the emperor and the Pope, Thomas Aquinas was tutored from a young child to be a cleric in the Roman Catholic Church.

His parents wanted him to join the ancient Benedictine Order, probably in hopes of him becoming a powerful abbot (like his uncle) to their political advantage, a practice that was common among "noble" families of the times. (They often would stop at nothing to get their relatives in high church positions because of the power of the Roman Church in affairs of money and political intrigue.)

When Thomas Aquinas later wanted to join the more recently formed Dominican Order, who were preachers, his parents had him kidnapped by his brothers for over a year in order to dissuade him. His brothers, reportedly, went so far to control him as to bring him a prostitute. The story goes, that he chased her away with a flaming stick.

Eventually, his family gave up and arranged for his "escape" through a window in order to save face at having lost the battle for his future.

Moving On to Study and Teach

In 1245 Thomas Aquinas went on to study at the University of Paris, where he met and was influenced by Albertus Magnus, a Dominican who was the head of the department of theology. Three years later, when Magnus left for Cologne, Aquinas also went there, where he became a Bible teacher and writer. Returning to Paris in 1252, where he stayed until 1259,  he studied to be, and eventually became, a master in theology and full professor, continuing to write extensively (including writing his famous, Summa contra Gentiles) and teach.

Around 1259, he was appointed theological advisor to the papal court spending some time with the pope and his court and also sent out to teach friars who could not attend the university, at communal living facilities in Naples and Orvieto. Then in 1265, Aquinas founded a university at the Dominican priory at Rome. While there, he began writing Summa Theologica, his most famous work, as well as other writings.

By 1269, he was back teaching at the University of Paris, where he confronted radical Averroism—philosophies derived from an Arab philosopher that covered Aristotle—and other subjects, from philosophy and theology to math, psychology, medicine, physics, and law. Aquinas' writings, including the Summa Theologica, on which he continued to work until shortly before his death, largely are a response to Averroism and radical Aristotelianism.

In 1272, Thomas Aquinas left Paris to establish a university in Naples, as requested by the Dominican Order to which he belonged. He reportedly had an experience with God there that led him to stop writing and devote his energy to reconciling the Romanਊnd Orthodox churches. He was apparently was trying to do that when, on his journey, he suffered a series of accidents and illnesses that resulted in his death in 1274.

His Legacy

In his lifetime and shortly after, Thomas Aquinas received support from Popes Innocent IV and Urban IV and opposition from the bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, who excommunicated some of those who followed Thomas Aquinas' teachings.

But, since then, his writings have become so influential among Roman Catholics that, in the early 20th century, Pope Benedict XV said that the Roman Catholic Church had adopted Thomas Aquinas' doctrines as their own.

Pope John  XXII, in the early 14th century, declared him a saint. In the 15th century Pope Pius V declared him a "Doctor of the Church." Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans remember him every year on January 28.

There seems to be evidence that he cared about the truth and about God, as shown in his dedication to preaching and teaching over political gain for himself. He also is reported to have said, when asked by Christ in a vision what he desired, "Only you, Lord." On his death bed, he said, "I receive thee, ransom of my soul. For the love of thee have I studied and kept vigil, toiled, preached and taught. " And the fact that his heart turned toward unity with the eastern churches also seems to point that way.

Unfortunately, he was drawn into the pattern of arguing doctrine and leaning on human understanding, instead of God's commands, that had become the common method of teaching centuries before, instead of spending his time insisting that disciples demonstrate the life of Christ, as the apostolic churches had.

Thomas Aquinas also took the view (Summa Theologica, second part of the second part, question eleven, article three), that anyone branded a "heretic" by the Church should be put to death if they failed to repent, in opposition to both the teachings and the example of Jesus and the Apostles.

The Satisfaction View of Atonement

Maybe one of the most widely known and lasting legacies of Thomas Aquinas is his contribution to the dialogue on what God accomplished by the sacrifice of Jesus, a subject referred to as, "the atonement." Aquinas' theory is intrinsically important to modern Catholics and important to evangelicals and other Christians, especially in the west, because of its influence on the writings of John Calvinਊnd his followers.

Calvin's version of the satisfaction theory, penal substitution, deeply pervades protestant theology to the point that tradition has made some version of it largely a test of orthodoxy in western thought, though it never was for the 1500 years of church history before Calvin.

More than 100 years before Thomas Aquinas, Anselm of Canterbury, dissatisfied by the Early Church Fathers' explanation (often called the ransom, or Christus Victor, theory of atonement), finding it "irrational" that Christ's death could be paid by God as a ransom to Satan in order to secure our freedom, came up with what was the beginning of a succession of "satisfaction theories of atonement."

His thoughts were that we all owe God a debt of honor to live without sin, and that, when we sin, we create a blemish on God's honor, which has to be rectified. Since God's honor is divine, it can only be rectified by the divine Son paying the debt to his Father with his life.

This seems to portray God the Father as being full of pride, worrying about his honor, placing it over the life and torture of his Son, when the truth is that—if the Father is accurately represented by Jesus as we believe—the Father makes himself of no reputation for our sakes, preferring to show his love and give honor to the Son, who, in turn, seeks no glory for himself, but gives all glory and honor to the Father.

Thomas Aquinas, not satisfied with Anselm's arguments, decided to answer him in his Summa Theologica in a long, involved discussion that is hard to condense. Aquinas' take seems to be that sin requires punishment in order to set it right and that Jesus was sent to be tortured and die in order to balance the account for men or to return "order" to his "justice."

Does this mean that the Father was forced to promote the torture and death of his son in order to balance some sort of math problem?

He went on to include his thought that we could pay the moral debt of our own sin by purposely experiencing pain equal to our pleasure derived from sin (penance), but that Christ had to pay the debt for our "original sin" that we inherited from Adam and Eve, which resulted in a loss of a divine empowerment or "supernature" that had previously allowed humans to overcome their natural ways.

According to Aquinas, it seems that the way we partake of Christ's merits and receive salvation is through the "sacraments" of the Roman Catholic Church (like infant baptism, confession, communion, confirmation, marriage, and last rites).

Then along came Calvin. A couple centuries later, reformer John Calvin and his followers, influenced by Thomas Aquinas, also tried to explain the mechanics of the atonement, changing moral imbalance to crimes, cutting away penance, and substituting predestination for free will.

The result is the doctrine of penal substitution, where mankind is totally evil, has no ability to choose God, and are cosmic criminals, sentenced to death at birth. That is, except for a few God has chosen to save by sending his Son to die in their place, which placates God's wrath and gets them to Heaven.

This seems to effectively relegate the Father to the role of a mean, angry legal functionary who either can't or won't forgive men without carrying out his wrath on his kind, innocent Son, and that he is randomly exclusive in choosing who to torture in a fire pit forever.

If we have to accept one of these models, exclusively, for understanding in what way Jesus' death "atoned" for us, I suggest the early church model, since they were closest to Jesus and the Apostles and because they had the fruit of of love and unity.

For a deeper discussion of the atonement in Scripture and history, see Substitutionary Atonement.

Writings of Thomas Aquinas

If you would like to read some of Aquinas' writings for yourself, you can find the Summa Theologicaਊnd other writings of Thomas Aquinas online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Reading original writings, rather than depending solely on evaluations from others is a good practice, especially if the subject of inquiry seems important enough to need to accurately determine the truth.

Thomas Aquinas has always been a whipping boy for theologians. In his own lifetime, his classmates referred to him as the “Dumb Ox” (a play on both his oafish size and the way his critical thinking appeared slow and pondering). The scorn continued after his death, when theologians such as William of Ockham and Duns Scotus attempted to have Thomas’ works condemned. Martin Luther, too, found need to reject Thomas’ approach to theology. Aquinas had, according to Luther, relied too heavily on Aristotle in his theology, and so Luther warned his readers that philosophical terms from pagan sources could only be used in theology once we have “given them a bath.”

A proper historical perspective should allow us to lay down our arms against Aquinas. Protestant theologians may never be fully comfortable with Aquinas’ teachings on natural law or reason&mdashand they may have sharper words for his teachings on celibacy, Mary, and purgatory&mdashbut he nevertheless stood at the headwaters of a theological resurgence in medieval thinking that would, in time, play a vital role in shaping the landscape of Protestantism.

Thomas was a nobleman born to the Duke of Aquino in Roccasecca, Italy, in 1225. Aquinas, in fact, was not his surname but the home of his family estates, and so his teachings have always been called Thomism and not Aquinism. As a young man, Thomas would have been well educated but spoiled rotten. Thomas himself was the second cousin of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II , the highest political ruler of the day and a man who was enthroned King of Germany, Italy, and Jerusalem. Such power corrupts, and these were dark days politically. Indeed, for much of the thirteenth century, emperors such as Frederick were not loyal sons of the church. Over time, they began to leverage their own estates, as well as the power derived from the lands won during the Crusades, to begin putting pressure on the pope to do their bidding.

In his first significant act as an adult, Thomas sided against his family’s struggles with the church. His father attempted to place his son as abbot of the wealthy monastery at Monte Cassino, not out of piety but in order to prop his son up in a lifestyle fit for his lineage. Thomas rejected this and, we are told, marched into his father’s room one day to announce he had joined the begging order of the Dominicans. His family was livid, and his brothers even kidnapped him and imprisoned him in their family castle in the hopes of teaching him some sense. Each of their attempts failed. (One story has them sending a prostitute to their brother, assuming that a life of inflamed debauchery was preferable to a life of service to the church.) Thomas eventually escaped and soon found his way to Paris in order to study with the reigning theologian of Europe, Albert the Great. He would spend the next thirty years studying Scripture and teaching theology.

The two great masterpieces of Thomas’ career were his Summa Theologica and Summa contra Gentiles. Both are among the most influential works in Western literature. The Summa contra Gentiles capitalized on the resurgence of Jewish and Muslim literature in the medieval period. Aquinas engages here in an apologetic with unbelievers by providing arguments for the existence of God and for the rational foundation of the Christian faith over against other worldviews.

Even more valuable for later church history was the Summa Theologica, a work that is unrivaled in its scope, covering a staggering number of subjects from questions of sex, the existence of angels, and the function of civil government to traditional doctrines such as Christ, salvation, and the church. In each of his works, Thomas is keen to establish a sure intellectual foundation for the justification of belief (epistemology). It was his exploration of rational argumentation, in fact, that led him ultimately to embrace a modified Aristotelian approach to reason and metaphysics. He struggled long and hard to come up with a solution to the ancient problem of explaining the diversity of life with the unity of ideas&mdashthe Problem of the One and the Many. Like Aristotle, Thomas took the view that the unifying reality of particular things stems from God’s creation and is implanted in the thing (res) itself, rather than existing outside of the created order.

Thomas’ epistemology can be said to hold in tension the biblical doctrines of creation and salvation. He believed that humans are created in the image of God (imago Dei) and therefore have within them the capacity for true and rational thinking. The fall, of course, has obscured this thinking and it leads us to error and sin, but the indelible image of our Creator has not, according to Aquinas, fallen out of our minds. Yet, as Thomas also taught, salvation comes by grace, through Christ, to this same sinful humanity. The doctrine of salvation teaches us that we are not perfect and that our sin can easily obscure the truth. Thomas thus lands on a proposed solution to the problem that he believes will hold both of these truths together: grace perfects nature it does not destroy it. In other words, though our minds are fallen, they are not destroyed also, though our natural minds are sinful, yet they receive grace to grasp the truth. This solution was ingenious in that it drew philosophy and science together rather than forcing them apart.

Other areas of Thomas’ teachings are problematic. Take, for example, his discussion of sex. Thomas applies his paradigm of “grace perfecting nature” to the question of whether unnatural sins such as sodomy, masturbation, and fornication&mdashindeed any sexual sins outside of marriage&mdashare the greatest sins a person can commit. Thomas contends that these sins are an utter violation of the natural human process of procreation, and therefore constitute a violation of the natural created order as well as a rejection of the grace of Christ that blesses and restores the marriage covenant. Thus, Thomas argues, these sins are indeed among the worst sins possible. Not a few theologians have noted that Aquinas, along with other medieval scholars, ignored biblical teaching on the intimacy and pleasure of the marriage bed, and thereby paved the way for future Roman Catholic theologians to stress procreation as the essence of sex in marriage. It also, and more problematically, suggests an unbiblical gradation of sin by attempting to distinguish between “mortal” (serious) and “venial” (unintentional or small) sins. How can it be said, for example, that sexual sins are more sinful than sins of violence and rage? Why must sexual sins be considered the worst violation of God’s law when the fundamental root of all sin is self-sufficient pride?

Further problems are evident in Thomas’ teaching on justification. On this subject Aquinas stands tall among medieval theologians, though he later came under serious fire by Protestant theologians. Like many medieval theologians, Thomas taught that Christians receive an infusion of grace at baptism that remains within the soul, though it does not take over the will and force it to do good works. Aquinas holds to a doctrine of predestination, since God chooses by His own will who will receive the infusion of grace through baptism. Still, Thomas refused to conclude that good works are motivated by the Holy Spirit acting upon the will to inspire us to obedience. For Thomas, if love is to be authentic, it must be our own works of love in cooperation with grace. The ethical goal of the Christian life, then, is to actualize this infused grace through good works, which guide us in life unto salvation. These works of love are required of believers in order to receive eternal life, though Aquinas believes he avoids Pelagianism by stressing that the first step in the salvation process is God’s gift of grace apart from works.

The most fitting analogy of Aquinas’ teachings on salvation is that of exercise. We are all humans, but some of us are flabby and some of us are fit. We have all received our essence from God, since we are all rational beings created in His image. But in order to become more than flabby couch-dwellers, we must exercise our will through the effort of physical labor. No one can lift our arms and legs for us during exercise the labor is our own. So, too, Thomas believed salvation was a matter of God infusing in the soul the grace sufficient to exercise in works of love, which then lead to eternal life. Our will must grasp this grace and exercise what Thomas called the “habits of grace” in order to grow in love towards Christ-likeness.

Thomas’s teachings on epistemology, justification, and ethics are among the most interesting and important subjects that continue to draw theologians to his many writings. Indeed, though Protestants have rejected not a few of his teachings since the Reformation, we can nevertheless look back&mdashas did John Calvin, Philip Melanchthon, Martin Bucer, and even Luther in his quieter moments&mdashand respect the heroic efforts of a theologian who has shaped our thinking for nearly eight hundred years.

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.

Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas, (1225 – 7 March 1274) was a Catholic Dominican priest from Italy, and is a Catholic saint and philosopher. He was born in Roccasecca, as the son of Count Andulf of Aquino and Countess Theodora of Teano.

His early education was at the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino. He attended the University of Naples, where he got the nickname "dumb ox" for his slow demeanor, though he was an intelligent and talented student. He studied philosophy, Catholic theology, church history, liturgy, and canon law.

By 1240, he became interested in the religious life and decided to become a friar with the new Dominican Order. His family captured him and brought him back because to become a Dominican one must eliminate material wealth. His parents expected him to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and become a Benedictine abbot. They kept him in a castle in an effort to change his mind. However, when they released him two years later, he immediately joined the Dominicans. [1]

He was the author of the cosmological argument. Catholics think Aquinas is the best teacher for one who wants to become a priest. [2] His most famous book is Summa Theologica. Aquinas is one of the 33 Doctors of the Church. Many schools are named after him including the Pontifical and Royal University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines. [3]

Aquinas is also known for his work with natural law. Aquinas took an optimistic view of human nature, believing that it is human nature to do good and not evil.

Thomas Aquinas - History

Of the theologians who have existed throughout human history, Thomas Aquinas is one of the most famous and influential of all. His philosophy was heavy rooted in the theory of natural theology, a belief system that somewhat combined concepts of the natural world with traditional beliefs about God and religion. Aquinas was eventually canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church.

Early Years of Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas was born on January 28, 1225. His place of birth was Roccasecca, which was part of the Kingdom of Sicily at the time. He was born into a family that could be called minor nobility and it was suggested that he follow the path of becoming an abbot.

Young Thomas started his formal education at the age of five and, as he grew older, he was introduced to the many classic philosophers of antiquity. Aristotle, Maimonides, and Averroes would be among the main philosophers who would influence his ideas and beliefs about life and religion.

Being Kidnapped

When Thomas was 19, Aquinas decided to join the newly formed Dominican Order. His family was not pleased with this decision. So while he was traveling, his family had him kidnapped and returned home.

When he returned home, he was actually imprisoned for two years. The hope here was that he would eventually renounce his allegiance to the Dominican Order and its belief system. Eventually he was able to run away and travel to Rome. From there, he moved to Paris to study at the Faculty of the Arts at the University of Paris.

Works of St. Thomas Aquinas

The school of thought born of the theories of Aquinas is called Thomism. Thomism was rooted in the belief in the notion that truth can be derived from any source. Aquinas was a realist and he even studied many different religious texts in order to create a broader and more expanded mind. The philosophy was also heavily influenced by the argumentative reasoning associated with Aristotle.

The Summa Theologiæ was the most important written work of Aquinas. The work was written from 1265 to 1274 and it centered on the main teaching of theology within the Catholic Church. In the work, Aquinas addressed several profound topics, including the creation of man, the purpose of man and his existence, the role of Christ, the sacraments, the very existence of God, and how a man who has lost his relationship with God can return back to the deity.

Among the most important components of the work would be the Five Ways, which reflects five unique arguments to prove the existence of God. Interestingly, these arguments only compose a very small fraction of a lengthy work. Perhaps it would be the profound nature of the argument that draws so much attention.

The Concept of Natural Theology

In order understand the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, one has to further understand the concept of natural philosophy since it guides the intellectual basis of his thinking.

On the most basic level of understanding, natural theology can be considered a form of theology that is based on a mix of everyday experience and common reasoning. For many living at the time of Aquinas, the most common theological approach to thinking was revealed theology. This was rooted in revelations from the Scriptures and personal religious awakenings. Such theological revelations can come from inward beliefs and may not be rooted in actual reality or clear, well-thought out reasoning.

Transcendental theology was seemingly rejected by Aquinas as this form of theology assumed it was impossible to prove the existence of God. To reiterate, Aquinas had developed five proofs for the existence of God, which was antithetical to transcendental theology theories.

Death and Legacy

In 1272, Aquinas moved to Naples to help establish a new teaching venue. While giving lectures in this location, he worked on the third book of the Summa Theologiæ. It is believed by many, during his tenure here, Aquinas had some sort of divine experience with God, although Aquinas would not speak much of it. This belief derives from very atypical and strange behavior Aquinas exhibited while praying at a convent in Naples.

Aquinas passed away on March 7, 1274. He was canonized as a saint on July 18, 1323.

Aquinas and the Orthodox Church

Orthodox theology has had a complex relationship with Aquinas' work. For a long time, Aquinas and scholastic or schoolbook theology was a standard part of the education of Orthodox seminarians. His philosophy found a strong advocate in the person of at least one Patriarch of Constantinople, Gennadius Scholarius.

In the twentieth century, there was a reaction against this "Latin captivity" of the Orthodox theology (Florovosky), and Orthodox writers have emphasized the otherness of Scholasticism, defining Orthodox theology in contradistinction to it. The criticisms have focused on, inter alia, the theological poverty of Scholasticism, nature, grace, the beatific vision, and Aquinas defense of the Filioque.

However, more recent scholarship has distinguished between Aquinas and the manner in which his theology was received and altered by the Schoolmen who came after him. Aquinas may be seen as the culmination of patristic tradition, rather than as the initiator of a tradition discontinuous with what came before. Vladimir Lossky, e.g., in praising the existential Thomism of the Catholic philosopher Etienne Gilson, refers to "the authentic Thomism of S. Thomas . a thought rich with new perspectives which the philosophical herd, giving in to the natural tendency of the human understanding, was not slow in conceptualizing, and changing into school Thomism, a severe and abstract doctrine, because it has been detached rom its vital source of power." The recent work of Anna Williams and others has pointed to the importance of deification in Aquinas and his similarity with St Gregory Palamas.

Early Life

Thomas Aquinas was born in 1225 to Count Lundulf of Aquino and his wife, Theodora, in their family castle in Roccasecca, near Naples, Italy, in the Kingdom of Sicily. Thomas was the youngest of eight siblings. His mother was Countess of Teano. Although both parents descended from noble lines, the family was regarded as strictly lower nobility.

As a young teenager, while studying at the University of Naples, Aquinas secretly joined the Dominican order of friars. He was attracted by their emphasis on academic learning, poverty, purity, and obedience to a life of spiritual service. His family strongly opposed this choice, wanting Thomas to become a Benedictine instead and enjoy a more influential and affluent position in the church.

Taking extreme measure, Aquinas’ family held him captive for more than a year. In that time, they doggedly conspired to tempt him away from his course, offering him a prostitute and even a position as archbishop of Naples. Aquinas refused to be seduced and was soon sent to the University of Paris—the leading center for academic studies in Europe at the time—to study theology. There he gained the best theological education possible under the tutelage of Albert the Great. Quickly perceiving Aquinas’ intellectual capacity and potential to influence, his mentor declared, "We call this young man a dumb ox, but his bellowing in doctrine will one day resound throughout the world!"

Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on St. Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas’s system of thought was declared the official philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church, but what exactly did he believe, and what else did he contribute to Christianity? Here’s your crash course on the life and accomplishments of St. Thomas Aquinas—and why he still matters today.

Who Was St. Thomas?

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) was born in a castle near Naples, Italy, in the High Middle Ages. The priests and monks of the Benedictine order within the Catholic Church educated him. Though his parents opposed him becoming a priest, he subsequently joined the Dominican order. While some of his fellow students called him “the dumb ox” as a youth, Thomas may have been the most intelligent Christian in history. For accomplishments within a lifespan that was just short of 50 years, he was honored as the most important philosopher and theologian within the entire Roman Catholic tradition. Thomas was a philosophical and theological genius but still amazingly humble. There is a story that toward the end of his life, Thomas experienced a mystical vision that made him view everything he had written as “straw worthy to be burned.” Now that must have been an incredible vision!

What Did St. Thomas Write?

Though he was a prolific author and wrote commentaries on biblical, theological, and philosophical topics, Thomas’s two most important apologetics-related books are Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles. In the first, he uses Aristotelian philosophy as a framework for explaining and defending Christian theism. In the second, he defends Catholic Christianity in light of the Greco-Arabic (Islamic) worldview challenge.

What Did St. Thomas Believe?

Christians of various traditions continue to utilize several of St. Thomas Aquinas’s apologetic arguments. Perhaps his three most important ideas or arguments for historic Christianity are the following:

1. Thomas devised five arguments—known as the Five Ways—for the existence of God: motion, first cause, contingency, perfection, and teleology. Christian philosopher and evangelical Thomist Norman Geisler summarizes Thomas’s Argument from Contingent Beings thusly: (a) some things exist but can not exist (i.e. possible beings) (b) and something has always existed (c) but possible beings do not ground themselves (d) therefore, there must be a necessary being. 1

2. Thomas believed that faith and reason were compatible. While natural reason alone is insufficient to discover the truths of divine revelation (Trinity, Incarnation, etc.), the divinely revealed truths themselves are not contrary to natural reason.

3. Thomas maintained that language about God is to be understood analogically (both like and unlike human applications). For example, when the Bible speaks of God as “Father,” is that term being used univocally (same as a human father), equivocally (different from a human father), or analogically (both like and unlike a human father)?

Why Does St. Thomas Matter Today?

St. Thomas was criticized by some for using Aristotelian philosophy to explain the Christian worldview (in negative terms “Christianizing Aristotle’s God”). But while a number of Aristotle’s views are in clear conflict with Christian theism, Christians of various traditions think Thomas’s synthesis was masterful. “Doctor Angelicus,” as he was called, was the greatest Christian thinker of the Medieval (scholastic) period. His system of thought, known as “Thomism,” was declared by Pope Leo XIII to be the official philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church. Canonized as a saint in 1323, Thomas Aquinas was truly one of the greatest philosophers and theologians of all time.

Evangelicals show a Thomistic influence when they appeal to formal arguments to attempt to support God’s existence and when they appeal to analogies to explain human language about God. It is not just Catholics who have been influenced by St. Thomas’s incredible mind.

Reflections: Your Turn

Given Thomas Aquinas’s famous five proofs for the existence of God, what do you consider to be the best argument for the God of Christian theism? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

Thomas Aquinas - History

Thomas D. D’Andrea, University of Cambridge

Thomas Aquinas is generally regarded as the West’s pre-eminent theorist of the natural law, critically inheriting the main traditions of natural law or quasi–natural law thinking in the ancient world (including the Platonic, and particularly Aristotelian and Stoic traditions) and bringing elements from these traditions into systematic relation in the framework of a metaphysics of creation and divine providence. His theory sets the terms of debate for subsequent natural law theorizing.

The fundamentals of Aquinas’s natural law doctrine are contained in the so-called Treatise on Law in Thomas’s masterwork, the Summa Theologiae, comprising Questions 90 to 108 in the first part of the second part of the three-part Summa. [1] Thomists have rightly expressed reservations about the procedure of surgically extracting the teaching in those Questions (or often the more strictly philosophical Questions 90 to 97) and representing it as Thomas’s natural law thinking tout court. Indeed, there is less possibility of distorting Thomas’s theory if one is careful to read the Treatise on Law in the context of the conceptual architecture of the Summa Theologiae as a whole.

The Summa is Thomas’s mature theological synthesis, aimed at providing beginners in theology with a systematic, overall account of both the divine nature, as knowable by faith-enlightened reason, and the divine plan and work of creating and redeeming the cosmos and ordaining it to a final transfiguration in glory at the end of history. Thomas’s method in composing the work, as he states in the work’s Prologue, is to treat of the whole of revealed theology (sacra doctrina) as briefly and clearly as possible, but according to a strict order whereby the very contours of the subject matter of the science dictate the architectonic plan and the sequential treatment of questions within the work. The first Question of the Summa so treats the nature and scope of theology itself, and once this is established, the work considers the very existence and nature of God: God first in His own inner and Trinitarian life, and then in His external activity of giving being to creatures and ordaining them to perfection or full realization for the manifestation or communication of His own glory.

The Summa and theology itself are all about God. The divine nature is the subject matter of the science [2] , and the very first principles or premises that serve as inferential starting points in the systematic inquiry of theology are those items that God has revealed to us concerning His nature and His plan and purpose in creating the cosmos. [3] God Himself and subsequently all creation are studied in the light of these starting points or first principles. In the order of the Summa, the first part of the work treats the divine nature in itself and then the free creative production of creatures by God (angels, humans, and all other animate and inanimate beings). The second part treats the grace-aided attainment of a cognitive-affective union with God by human activity (which union represents the fullest realization of human nature, as we shall see), and the third part treats Christ and his Church and sacraments, the necessary means for man’s union with God.

Law, of its various sorts, has a role to play in humans’ full realization of their nature by free acts (acts over which they have a certain degree of control and dominion). What role? To ask this question is to seek to grasp Thomas’s natural law teaching in the context of his overall metaphysical cosmology. According to Thomas, human nature, a psychosomatic unity, is perfected or fully realized by harmonious and habitual excellence in the exercise of its intrinsic capacities and powers (e.g. cognitive, creative, affective, productive). Highest among these capacities—the capacity with the most potential to enrich and enlarge human nature and so to realize it most completely—is the human intellect, with its power to come to some understanding of the nature of whatever exists. Following Aristotle, Thomas teaches that through intellect the human soul is potentially all things: it ranges over the entire universe of what is, and by acts of understanding and inferring, it in a certain way brings the entire universe into the soul. Put another way, in conjunction with the will the intellect expands the soul to become all that is by a cognitive and affective, but not a physical, union. Again with Aristotle, Thomas maintains that the highest object of this highest human power, (and so the appropriate but often hidden or misperceived ultimate and crowning end of all human excellence-in-activity and striving) is cognitive-affective union with the first uncaused cause of the totality of things: Deus (in Aquinas’s Latin) or God.

For Thomas, in contradistinction to Aristotle but closer to the teaching of Plato, this first uncaused cause is not merely the best, most self-sufficient, most fully realized being in the cosmos, but also the artisan-creator and ruler of the cosmos. This first, self-existent, and infinite being loves the world into existence, according to the model of His own eternal creative ideas, and orders the totality of individual things, notes as it were in a symphony, to one integrated end or purpose: a cosmic common good.

Created beings without intellect or will (whether animate or inanimate) are willed into being and directed toward their own perfection in the context of the perfection of the whole, which perfection they each approach automatically or spontaneously and without understanding or resistance. Creatures endowed with intellect and will (angels and humans), however, only fully realize their own potentialities consciously or by uncoerced intelligible decision, and so are able to ratify or to frustrate God’s creative purpose. It is here that we see the role in the divine plan and in human life for law, as human beings characteristically understand the term: law, Thomas will have it, is an extrinsic source or principle of human perfection or full human development. God, he states, “instructs us by means of His Law.” [4]

Thomas argues outright in the very first article of the first question of the Treatise on Law, that law (lex) essentially can be seen as an ordinance of reason directing activity toward some end, goal, or purpose, and the highest end or purpose we have as humans is our ultimate fulfillment, the full realization of our nature, or “happiness” as is commonly said in English. Hence all law is meant to sub-serve human happiness. [5] But law has by common acknowledgement and usage a social function as well: it directs the activity of some collectivity to a common goal, and it does this authoritatively. So the true purpose of law is to sub-serve the happiness of all in the community. [6] But law does not merely recommend or suggest, it binds and commands. [7] Lawmakers in our familiar experience are thus recognized authority figures within a social community who address themselves to the reason of the members of that community, commanding them to shape their actions in certain specified ways. [8] Because law has this essentially directive function, in order for an ordinance of reason from a recognized authoritative source to have the status of law, it must also be promulgated, or made public, so that it can perform its coordinating and directing work. Hence we have Thomas’s famous lapidary definition of law in the Treatise: it is “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.” [9]

God, the ultimate cause of all being, activity, and development in everything that is, is nothing if not caring for the community of creation, and as universal creator He has authority to the highest degree with respect to His intelligent creatures. Is He not the lawmaker-lawgiver par excellence? He is, Thomas thinks, since God satisfies the condition for this appellation perfectly. Elaborating on an earlier theological tradition but making a straightforwardly metaphysical point, Thomas maintains that we have a law of God’s making that is co-eternal with His own nature. This is the Eternal Law (lex aeterna) through which the divine intellect creatively designs and directs all creatures to a common end (the common end of the universe), promulgating in time this eternal ordinance of His reason by the very act of creating beings and endowing them with spontaneous natural inclinations to move toward their own perfection in the context of the universe and its overall and unified perfection.

Created beings without intellect and will observe the eternal law, the eternal directives in the creative mind of God, spontaneously or automatically and perfectly. In the case of human beings, this eternal law directs them spontaneously toward their full and complete good by ordaining their essential nature to acts of understanding and desire for the goods constitutive of human perfection or fulfillment. But human beings have each their own intellect and will, so their spontaneous inclination and subsequent movement toward that full and complete good is brought about (or not, since it can be resisted or rejected) by conscious ratification and cooperation, that is, knowingly and willingly. Thus, in the human world we have the Eternal Law as received and understood from the inside, as it were, and observed only conditionally: when humans correctly understand, desire, and act for the goods of human nature (food, drink, clothing, shelter, creative activity, knowledge, friendship, etc.) they are freely enacting observance to the Eternal Law. They are not making a law for themselves, but are discovering it and appropriating it for themselves. They are discovering and potentially ratifying in action the divine design-plan for their nature, to which non-rational creatures witness in whatever they do and undergo, although they are neither cognizant of this plan as law, nor capable of knowingly instantiating or resisting it.

This for Thomas finally is the natural law (lex naturalis): a sharing from within (or participation) of the Eternal Law, but not, Thomas insists, something otherwise different from that first and highest law in the mind of God: “the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law.” [10] This participation is available to all humans independently of any reception on their part of divine supernatural revelation: the natural law is observed whenever humans both engage in correct practical reasoning about what is good and best for them overall in any given situation [11] and when they act in accord with that rational determination. [12]

The natural law, according to Aquinas, has certain basic and self-evident precepts or dictates, dictates knowable to any human with a properly functioning intellect and a modicum of experience of the world. Paraphrasing Thomas, first and fundamental, is the precept that, “anything good [i.e. that which perfects human nature] is to be pursued [is the appropriate object of human activity], and the opposite of this good, evil, is to be avoided in all human acts.” Other basic precepts, but with specific content, would include those such as: “bodily health is a good to be pursued and bodily harm avoided,” or “knowledge is a good to be pursued and ignorance and falsehood avoided,” or “friendship is a good to be pursued and those things opposed to it avoided.” [13]

In each case, human reason grasps that some object is perfective of human nature and so directs that nature toward it by an at least tacit precept or action-guide, while directing it away from that good’s contrary. The basic precepts of the natural law command human nature to seek obvious human goods when the status of some presumptive object of human action as a good is less evident, investigation is required to determine its status. Not all, however, are equally fit for this task of discernment about what is good for human nature in general and good for this particular human being as such. [14]

This natural law instantiating practical reasoning about what is best for humans by nature (and therefore about what is ordained by God) spontaneously and appropriately results, as Thomas observes, in the construction of man-made laws. Although God’s design-plan for the whole of humanity (for all human acts throughout cosmic history, that is, and for their orchestration toward the common good of the cosmos) is perfectly complete and specified in all detail in the divine mind, that portion of the Eternal Law which concerns humankind in its nature and in its divinely foreknown history is not fully graspable by the human intellect. Because of this inherent limitation of the human mind, humans must make their own laws to supplement that portion of the Eternal Law that they do spontaneously and readily grasp (which portion includes the rudimentary parts of the natural law) [15] , to direct themselves in community to their fulfillment. They do this correctly either by deriving specific norms from the most basic and general principles or precepts of the natural law [16] , or when they give specific shape to one of these basic and discovered dictates or principles appropriate for a particular time and place [17] .

The former derivation of human laws from the natural law Thomas refers to as “the law of nations” (ius gentium) the latter he refers to as civil law (lex civilis) [18] : both forms of law are, inasmuch as they are legitimately derived from the dictates of the natural law, normative. That is, they comprise rational requirements for right human action on Aquinas’s view. Any human law, though, that directly contravenes a dictate of the natural law [19] ipso facto fails as a law and has the status of an irrational command instead. Such commands ought only be observed for prudential reasons, such as to avoid some greater harm that might arise in the social order from the failure to observe what is really only a pseudo-law. [20]

[1] The beginning student of the work of St. Thomas Aquinas can profitably consult the faithful literal English translation of the Summa Theologiae (also known as the Summa Theologica) in the following edition: Fathers of the English Dominican Province, eds., Summa Theologica, 3 vols. (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947). All quotations of the Summa in the present article are drawn from this English translation of the work, and citations are given in the form of part, question, article: as in “I-II, Q. 91, a. 4” (or, “first part of the second part of the Summa, question number ninety-one, fourth article”). “Questions” is annotated “QQ.”

[2] By “science” (scientia) here is meant a disciplined inquiry into the fundamental elements and explanatory principles (that is, the most basic intrinsic constituents) of some subject domain and the necessary intrinsic properites of that subject domain that derive from these.

[3] As understood by Thomas, this revelation was received through the patriarchs and prophets of the Chosen People of Israel and culminated in the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the subsequent revelations to his Apostles.

[4] Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologiae I-II, Q. 90, Prologue.

[7] Lex, Thomas observes, is derived in Latin etymologically from ligare which means “to bind.”

[11] Or in other words, when their reason tracks the truth about how their nature, both in general and in the here-and-now, can best be perfected.

[12] Following Plato, Aristotle and much of the classical tradition, Thomas thinks that appropriate qualifications good, better, and best for person X in general and in situation Y are matters of objective, impersonal truth. Thomas also thinks that the Old Law which God reveals to the Chosen People of Israel in establishing a covenant with them, and particularly the law of the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, captures the basic and essential requirements of the natural law at a level of medium generality, that is, in serviceable general outline (see I-II, Q. 99, a. 2 and I-II, Q. 100, a. 3).

[16] For example, when one moves from the principle that “the taking of another’s rightful possessions is contrary to the good and so to be avoided” to the more particular principle that “slander is the taking of one’s good name and so to be avoided and proscribed.”

[17] For instance, and to use a contemporary example, they move from the recognition that natural law teaches that “acts of violence against other persons are contrary to the good and to be avoided and in justice punished” to the determination that, “in this time and place and in this particular political community, citizen S’s act of assault on citizen R should be punished by thirty days of community service.” Cf. Summa I-II, Q. 95, a. 2.

[19] That is, or right practical reasoning about what is good for humans.

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