St. Thomas Aquinas for Today – Three Themes for Directing our Theology

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We’ve had a lot of dead saints’ pictures on the site lately but we as Protestants are not great at taking time to get to know the history of our faith and so we will continue to draw on the rich resources of the church’s heritage. There is perhaps no richer source than St. Thomas.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) known as the “angelic doctor” is the unofficial, official philosopher/theologian of the Catholic Church. I say unofficial/official because the Catholic Church does not, and should not, have just one theologian that speaks for it, but Thomas does have a privileged place among Catholic teaching and doctrine.

From Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris (1870) which touted Thomas as the philosopher par excellence that could help restore the loss of depth among Catholic philosophy to St. Thomas Aquinas high schools littered throughout the country, Thomas is likely the most widely esteemed thinker in the Catholic tradition.

Paul J. Griffiths and Reinhard Hütter, editors of the fantastic volume Reason and the Reason’s of Faith (2005) say in their introduction that they were surprised at how universally and frequently Thomas was drawn on in the collection from writers of all different kinds of Christian traditions, far more than any other thinker. Thomas thought holds an embarrassment of riches for the Church that we must have at least a rudimentary grasp of of to be intellectually responsible leaders in the Church. 

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I have been diving back into Thomas’ world and his writings during some time off during this Thanksgiving season and want to highlight five themes that ground Thomas’ thought that seem to me absolutely crucial to guiding reflection on God and the world around us. Thomas’ metaphysical first principles provides the Christian thinker with a set of basic principles through which questions of reality can be filtered — a bastion of hope in a world looking for stability. In what follows I have borrowed heavily from the venerable Thomistic scholar, the late W. Norris Clarke, longtime professor at Fordham. Clarke leaned heavily on the “existential” interpretation of Thomas’ thought introduced to America through the writings of the French philosopher/theologian Etienne Gilson and furthered by Catholic thinkers like Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan.  Before we dive in, three definitions are vital to understanding Thomas’ technical language.

A Thomistic Glossary to Get Going

esse– The best translation of this Latin term is probably existence. Esse is the act by which things exist. God is pure esse, pure existence, anything that exists participates in esse. All created things have a natural inclination to God because our existence is sustained only by a continual outflow of esse, God Himself. This word is the heart and soul of Thomistic metaphysics and fully explicated in the little volume De Ente et Essentia. Being with a capital B often stands in for this crucially important Latin term. Think Heidegger.

essence- The essence of a thing is that which makes a thing to be what it is. The essence of the human person is humanity, everything that makes a human a human, for instance. Any created being analyzed metaphysically is a composite of esse and essence. Analyzed in more natural scientific terms, all beings are composed of form (the essence of a thing) and matter.

being- being with a lower case b is all that exists that consists of a composite of essence and esse. A being is a human person, a rock, a puppy, an angel, an electron…

Three Themes of Thomastic Metaphysics that should Guide our Thinking Today

1.The connaturality of the human spirit and being. “By nature all people desire to know,” Aristotle says in the first line of the Metaphysics.The human mind is made to know being, being is intelligible, and the human spirit is made to seek being, being is good. That being is intelligible is the first principle of the intellectual life and that good is to be done an evil avoided is the first principle of the moral life. As Christians, this principle is grounded in the fact that creation was spoken into being by the Logos, the incarnate Word of God, the essence of intelligibility and goodness.

2. An understanding of the structure of being of composed of essence and the act of existence (esse). This existential structure of every created thing is what gives us community with every other being in the universe. The essence of a thing is what limits its receptivity of the act of existence, the greater the amount of participation in esse, the more perfect the being because existence is the perfection of God. “Existence itself is participation in God’s own essential perfection.” Human beings thus have an essence that allow for greater participation in esse than does, say, a fly, and thus the human being is closer to God’s perfection than a fly. It is only in the human person that Being is able to truly manifest itself as Being, because it is only the human person that is capable of being overawed by the sheer grace of existence. The human person is truly a Da-Sein, the only creature where Being is self-manifested.

3.being (lower-case) is by its very nature dynamic. (The same is true of upper case Being, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.) Created things are self-revealing by nature because being overflows into action. What would a being be that didn’t have the capacity to act or be acted upon? It wouldn’t be an intelligible object, it would be literally nothing, no-thing. The rock has the potential to be picked up and thrown, the puppy’s being overflows into running and playing, the human person types metaphysical blog entries and drinks coffee in the cold. This principle grounds a realist epistemology. We can know things outside of our minds as they are in the world because they are by nature self-revealing by their actions. Creation, being, reveals its essence continually through action and thus throws itself into a web of relations creating a universum, a being-together. The modern notion of inert substance found in Descartes, Locke, and Hume, as static, simply an extended thing or an unknowable pincushion revealed only by its “accidents” should be rejected. Being is fundamentally self-revealing and relational.

These three themes are but a fly by of Aquinas but if you don’t grasp them, you won’t understand Thomas. He is a difficult thinker and getting into the language and the terminology is difficult. But he is worth spending a day, a month, a year, a lifetime to understand. He brings God and creation into a whole new level of understanding, wonder, and worship.

Happy Advent!

 

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Author: Mark Wampler

Books, Jesus, and family. With coffee and rain. I've got two little boys, Jeremiah and Isaac and a ridiculously smart and good-looking wife named Rebekah. I'm an InterVarsity campus pastor and write at Theologianslibrary.com which you should contribute to. Shoot me a message. :)

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