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Ox’s non-withdrawing roar

by
08 March 2024

St Thomas Aquinas died 750 years ago, but remains influential in the world of theology, Andrew Davison writes

Alamy

St Thomas Aquinas in a portrait (1476) by Carlo Crivelli (c.1430/35-c.94) from the Demidoff Altarpiece. The painting was originally done for the Church of San Domenico, Ascoli Piceno, in Italy

St Thomas Aquinas in a portrait (1476) by Carlo Crivelli (c.1430/35-c.94) from the Demidoff Altarpiece. The painting was originally done for the Churc...

ACCORDING to legend, St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) was a quiet student, more interested in his studies than in drawing attention to himself. That earned him the nickname “dumb ox” (he was already, in his early twenties, a stout figure). The teacher at the front of the classroom was none other than St Albert the Great, and he had the measure of this large, quiet Italian. “You might call him a dumb ox,” the legend has Albert saying, “but one day he will bellow so loud that all the world will hear him.”

The fame of Thomas of Aquino has indeed stretched around the world. Schools and colleges have been named after him in Ghana and Nigeria, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand, and Europe and the Americas. This week, however, our mind is not on geographical reach, but on how long that “bellow” has continued to echo: yesterday was the 750th anniversary of Thomas’s death (at Fossanova, 60 miles south-east of Rome).

For Roman Catholics, Aquinas is the Common or Universal Doctor of the Church, as Pope Pius XI described him. The Orthodox Churches have a harder time with this herald of Western theology, although that deserves some qualification. Plenty of Eastern theologians today think that they can do business with the great Dominican. The work of Marcus Plested reminds us of the long history of Orthodox attention to Aquinas’s thought.

Most remarkable, as an ecumenical angle, is the surge of interest among Protestant Evangelicals. For a century or more, Aquinas was more often punched and derided than read. Not now. Evangelical magazines, websites, and podcasts fall over themselves to learn from him. His magnificent account of the doctrines of God and of creation are particularly prized. Little did I think, when I wrote my very Thomist Participation in God (CUP, 2020), that so much interest would come from Southern Baptists — or, closer to home, from Oak Hill.

 

WHAT is so great about Aquinas? In view of his fabled classroom reluctance to draw attention to his own erudition, he might be glad if I pointed, above all else, to his capacity to be a window on the writings of others. And how many others! Time and again, some insight that he offers comes from his knowledge of the Greek Fathers, unusually extensive for the time.

Then there is his ability to bring in philosophy to illuminate a point, often with some conceptual distinction or other. There, his greatness turns on integrating Aristotle with Platonism. He is Aristotelian in detail (and who distinguished the facets of reality quite as well as Aristotle?); but, in sweep, he is Platonic. His sense of the pouring forth of creation, in glorious multiplicity, as an imitation of the Plenitude from whom all things spring, puts Aquinas in the top rank of Christian Platonists.

Perhaps most important of all, he was as much a scholar of scripture as of doctrine. Half the time, he was commenting on scriptural texts. When he wasn’t, the Bible is still everywhere. One of his gifts to posterity is the Catena Aurea, his “chain of gold”, assembling snippets of patristic commentary on the four Gospels, passage by passage. Any preacher would do well to have it bookmarked.

 

WHAT of his place among Anglicans? His biblical and patristic focus chimes with the historical centres of gravity of Anglican theology. The Oxford Movement was too interested in patristics to make Aquinas much of a focus, but his star eventually rose among Anglo-Catholics. Alfred Garnett Mortimer, signing off his two-volume Catholic Faith and Practice (1898), wrote that “The simplest and most perfect sketch of universal theology is to be found in the Summa of S. Thomas.”

In the 20th century, Thomas’s best Anglican advocate was Eric Mascall (1905-93), a priest of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd and Professor of Historical Theology at King’s College, London.

The distinctive character of Anglican Thomism comes by dint of education (or lack of it). Many Roman Catholics have received years of induction into Thomas as founder of a system, full of technical terms of art. Few Anglicans have. While I recognise the value of that education, there are benefits from standing outside it. For one thing, Anglicans tend to go straight to Thomas rather than to the system that has grown up around him (brilliant though some of that is). Our situation probably also makes for creativity, having less of a sense of tramlines to where his thought might lead.

However great an Anglican’s veneration for Aquinas might be, they will probably concur with Mascall that “I do not consider Thomas locutus, causa finita [Thomas has spoken, the case is closed] as the last judgement to be passed on any theological problem; though my approach might be summed up in the words, Thomas locutus, causa incepta [Thomas has spoken, the matter is begun].”

 

AQUINAS was a man of superhuman intelligence and insight. As Josef Pieper put it, his arguments have the interlocking architectural majesty of a Bach fugue. He offers both a summation and a fountainhead. But what makes him a saint — and, indeed, such a fine theologian — is his interest in God. Faith does not reach out to a proposition, he wrote, but to a reality. That gets to the heart of why so many people turn to Aquinas today: because he thought that theology was about God.

Seven hundred and fifty years after Thomas’s death, one of the distinctive characteristics of the Church in our time is that quite so many Christians — across so many Churches — would gladly echo the words of Pope Pius XI in 1923: “Just as it was said of old to the Egyptians in time of famine: ‘Go to Joseph’ [Genesis 41.55], so that they should receive a supply of corn to nourish their bodies, so to those who are now in quest of truth we say ‘Go to Thomas,’ that they may ask from him the food of solid doctrine of which he has an abundance to nourish their souls unto eternal life.”

 

Canon Andrew Davison is Starbridge Professor of Theology and Natural Sciences in the University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Theology and Dean of Chapel at Corpus Christi College. He is currently a Visiting Fellow of the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, in the United States.

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