God knows all things eternally at once. God knows things other than himself through himself. He knows them simultaneously and intuitively. God is omniscient.
If the thought and writings of any one person changed the course of history, it was the thought of Thomas Aquinas. The foundations of Western civilization and Western thought are planted in the writings of this 13th century saint and doctor of the church.
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Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts culminate in the analysis of what thought is in itself. He reflects upon human thought and then upon God’s thoughts.
Human understanding is based on what can be perceived by the senses and captured in the imagination. The proper object of the human intellect is the ‘whatness’ or quiddity of the material thing. Aquinas is down-to-earth in being concerned about thoughts based on things that can be perceived.
The judgment of things is, however, based on innate first principles – principles infused into the human soul by God. We judge things through uncreated truth.
God is the efficient cause of all things. God is really related to creatures as their Creator, and their relationship with God is one of dependence. God knows his own essence and every creature as participating in his essence. Every creature has its own proper form in which it is like God. God knows the form or idea of every creature. In this way God both made the creature and knows the creature.
As human beings, we only know ourselves and are ourselves through God.
When William Shakespeare put this in his play Hamlet he was, of course, quoting Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica Volume 2. Hamlet asks the skull of a man who has ceased to be whether it is better to live or die?
In the original reference Aquinas states that every contingent thing has in it something necessary. Contingency arises from matter. Things made of matter have in them the potentiality to be or not to be.
Shakespeare was quoting the following reference:
Summa Theologica Volume 2: Treatise on man: What our intellect knows in material things: Whether our intellect can know contingent things?
The principle of identity – in the order of being (ontology) Aquinas states that everything is identical with itself. This signifies the unity of things. Ontologically something must either be or not be; it cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same sense.
Most people find ontology difficult to follow, but they get the bit about the dialogue with the skull. They get that life is a difficult and painful business. Maybe we sometimes wish not to be.
Some theologians have said that Aquinas’ argument is not dependent on a past, but only on a present cause of being. It is true that act is a continuous present. God is the continuous present of creation. What is made is maintained in actuality by God’s own existence.
Aquinas writes that creatures exist and live through their participation in God. This is one truth, but it does not discount the truth that God conferred existence upon them in the first acts of creation that brought their forms into existence.
Therefore created things had a beginning as well as continuing existence.
Aquinas read the Bible in the most literal way that logic would allow, and far more literally than St Augustine’s reading of it.
In Summa Theologica volumes 1 and 2 Aquinas discusses why certain phrases were employed by Moses in writing Genesis and what they actually signify. I, personally have derived great benefit from his insights as a basis to further reflection. However, this further reflection must be done in the light of modern science, not according to the science of the Middle Ages.
Thomas Aquinas believed that none of the Biblical authors erred in composing the Scriptures; if we have the wisdom to understand it, the truth becomes evident. The whole of his theology is based on the Bible and the actual words used. The works of Aquinas read as evangelical as any Protestant Evangelical writings, but he was writing nearly 300 years before the Reformation.
Thomas Aquinas dealt in the analysis of what things are – the subject matter of science and philosophy. Aquinas’ quest was for the reasons for things. In the Christian tradition even the mysteries of faith are not irrational in themselves, but often beyond human grasp unless the meaning is revealed by God to his chosen.
In philosophy Thomas Aquinas sided with Aristotle most of the time, but greatly expanded his ideas, joining them with the ideas of St Augustine. The Greek philosophers were firm believers in God, but Thomas Aquinas took this further and Christianized the ideas.
Aquinas established that creatures, including human beings, have agency and are separate to God. The purposes of creation, however, are drawn towards their conclusion by God’s providence and governance of creatures.
Aquinas proclaimed the God of an ordered universe in which each thing has its place. He likewise ordered his writings such that they could be read – which was unusual in his day. Many ancient books read like a hotchpotch of bits and pieces.
On the question of origins, however, Thomas Aquinas was bound by the science of his historical time period – the High Middle Ages. He could not know what was not available to know. He could not know what we know now with the benefit of modern science. I think that he knew that he couldn’t know because in discussing origins and addressing certain questions, he does not say categorically that it was like this or like that. In these cases Aquinas quotes all the sources and opinions of the erudite of his day without declaring which one should be followed or taken as the definitive true path.
While displaying an openness of approach on questions he could not answer, he was very firm on the truth he could establish. His arguments are built up step by step paying attention to detail. He details the way in which the Bible was written and the particular words used, the intention behind the text, and makes observations relating to the human condition.
There have been many centuries of exegesis of the Bible by theologians; among all exegets, I believe that Thomas Aquinas is among the greatest.
Ancient Greek philosophers initiated a dialogue about science and the nature of reality from about 600 BC. The texts written by Greek philosophers were copied and conserved by Orthodox Christians in libraries belonging to the Byzantine Empire prior to the fall of Alexandria in 642 AD. Islamic scholars translated these texts from Greek into Arabic. Orthodox Christians continued to study the texts in Greek up to the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Catholic Europeans at first read texts translated from Arabic into Latin. When philosophical dialogue was taken up by theologians when universities were first founded in Europe during the 13th century, many of the Latin scholars were Averroeist and Avicenna followers. But Europe was to take its own direction different to that of these Arabic philosophers. The pivot point of this new direction was the work of Thomas Aquinas himself.
Thomas Aquinas accomplished the feat of summarizing all the relevant knowledge known up to his day (1250s – 1270s). He got to grips with the writings of ancient Greek philosophers especially Aristotle, Islamic philosophers such as Avicenna and Averroes, Church Fathers especially St Augustine (354-430 AD) as well as with his contemporary Scholastic scholars. He commented on every part of the Bible which he knew in its entirety. What he bequeathed to future generations was encyclopedic knowledge from the Ancient Greeks through to the Medieval Scholasticism of his day.
Aquinas was quite motivated by hot debates, and had many of them with the medieval philosophers and theologians of his day. Aquinas was outspoken and would not back down. This won him both admiration and enemies.
At the end of his life Aquinas was summoned by the Pope to attend the Council of Lyons. It is unclear whether this was to get a good telling off or to be commended for putting down some heretics and enemies of the church. Thomas did not want to go, but started out. The journey to Lyon was to prove his final voyage, as Thomas Aquinas managed to die en route.
In 1273 Thomas had a vision of Christ (it was witnessed by a brother as he prayed in the chapel). After the vision Aquinas wrote no more and did not finish his great work Summa. By the time he died a year later, Aquinas’ spirit was already residing elsewhere, and his body fairly quickly followed.
Thomas Aquinas was made a saint, a Doctor of the Church and a Father of the Catholic Church. Aquinas’ writing on the Doctrine of Creation was adopted by the Catholic Church as it’s own teaching. His writings on theology were taught to men training to be priests until Vatican II in the 1960s.
Thomas Aquinas applied himself to Natural Theology which is to seek knowledge of God and of things through reason. It was Aquinas who defined in detail what could be taken as true and what should be regarded as false in the many areas of theology. In the numerous volumes of The Summa Theologica Aquinas lays out his arguments for the correct understanding of God, the Trinity, angels, human souls, the human condition and creation.
Aquinas is most quoted on his five ways to prove the existence of God, although this is a very small section of Summa. Aquinas’ tour de force was the recognition that God created things from nothing: in Latin creatio ex nihilo. This became the Doctrine of Creation of the Catholic church.
Aquinas debated with Siger of Brabant who was a Latin Averroist disagreeing with him on many points. Brabant proposed that church theology is true and philosophy is true even though they contradict each other – you just keep them separate. Aquinas proclaimed one truth although this one truth could be approached by the two paths. Aquinas stood firm and would not be moved and would not accept contradiction or the double truth.
Aquinas tirelessly fought against heretics. There is an anecdote of Aquinas having been invited to a dinner with King Louis IX of France and his courtiers. He reluctantly went, however, he found the flirtatious courtiers boring so he remained in his own thoughts, not listening to the trivial chit chat. Suddenly he banged his fist on the table and exclaimed “And that will settle the Manichees.” The king quickly summoned a scribe to write down on a tablet the inspiration that Aquinas had just had to prove a point before he forgot it.
In 1267 Thomas Aquinas met William Moerbeke who was busy translating Aristotle directly from the Greek. Up to this point Latin scholars had only known Aristotle from translations of Arabic into Latin. The translations from Arabic presented Aristotle’s thoughts coloured by Islamic philosophy to Latin scholars.
From this point on, Thomas Aquinas based all of his own writings on the translations of Moerbeke of the original Greek texts. In this way he was able to lead Latin theology in a totally new direction: one that would become the basis to Western thought and Western Civilization.
The crucial point here is that whereas the teaching from the Islamic world was that men participated in one collective soul that they either followed or refused to follow, Thomas Aquinas taught that each man was an individual who had his own soul and free-will. As a consequence, each man has his own mind and is able to decide on his own actions whichever social class that man belonged to. Aquinas argued that it is because of this that slavery is wrong as it deprives a man of choice in his actions. (In Western Europe in the 13th century there was the system of feudal landlords and serfs, while in other parts of the world there were systems based on slavery).