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Discovering Aquinas:
An Introduction to his Life, Work and Influence
Aidan Nichols OP

Acknowledgement: The following extracts are taken from Discovering Aquinas by Aidan Nichols OP, published and copyright 2002 by Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd [and Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co], and used by permission of the publishers.

Copyright ©: Aidan Nichols O.P. 2002

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Preface vii

Part One: The Man

1. Thomas in his Time 3

Part Two: The Doctrine

2. Revelation 21
3. God and Creation 37
4. The Trinity 60
5. The Trinity in Man 74
6. Angelology 82
7. Grace and the Virtues 91
8. Christ, Church, Sacraments 110

Part Three: The Aftermath

9. Thomas in History 129

Part Four: The Tools

10. Thomas and the Practice of Philosophy 147
11. Thomas and the Idea of Theology 167

Conclusion 181
Bibliography 185
Notes 195
Index of Names 212


In John Gray's novel Park, set centuries hence, Dlar shows his visitors an item of furniture of outstanding beauty:

See the best of all, as to the embellishments; and with that he displayed the painted inside of the boards, in glowing opus lense, golden without the use of gold. Scenes from the Summa, said the giver, in reverent and delicate banter. Such indeed were the subjects; for there may be lovely and exquisite emblems of what is abstract. [1]

'Natural forms', writes Thomas in the De veritate (the 'disputed questions about truth'), 'are as it were images of immaterial realities'. [2] Brought into play re-wrought as symbols, they can stand for deep or complex concepts.

A theological thinker for whom that is a congenial reflection is useful to those of us who need the help of the poet's sensibility if we are to be awoken from the prose of our metaphysical slumbers. Certainly, there is a difference of intellectual temper between those who approach the topic of theology with a robust assurance of the power of philosophical argument and those others, more affected by images than by ideas, who look to history and experience for the presentation of religious theory. (Immanuel Kant would call the contrast one of Verstand with Vernunft, but centuries earlier Thomas had spoken of intellectus and ratio.) It is easy for the supporters of either to make a caricature of the other. And yet they are, or can be, complementary. It is in the spirit of Thomas - who approved of distinctions but disliked the 'either/or' - to follow up both approaches. Though at one point criticising Plato for 'proposing everything in figures and by the art of symbols', a selection of images is vital to Thomas - who was both a conceptual thinker and a poet - in the setting forth of sacred truth. [3]

I like to think of this as Thomistic interpretation 'in the English manner'. I have suggested elsewhere that the particular contribution of the English Dominicans of a pre-Conciliar generation to the Thomist patrimony lay in the furnishing of a powerfully incarnational idiom for its articulation. [4] In this they belonged to a wider common tradition. Religious metaphysics, whether Catholic or Anglican, in modern England - in Hopkins and Chesterton, Lewis and Sayers, Farrer and Mascall - delights to put ideas and images together in words, not to keep them apart. There is, I hope, a touch of this in what follows.

It is far from irrelevant to the historical St Thomas: the one who actually lived. His prose may not seem especially imagistic. It is far more so than some Thomistic manuals would suggest. In the course of giving a brief answer to a couple of objections to some thesis, Thomas is perfectly capable of switching from the most austere metaphysical analysis to some extravagant metaphor taken from a Greek Father or a Carolingian monk. But more to the point is the whole texture of his thought. In his commentary on The Divine Names, a treatise of fundamental theology by the sixth-century Syrian monk who used the pseudonym of 'Denys the Areopagite', Thomas remarks:

We do not know God by seeing his essence, but we know him from the order of the whole universe. For the very 'university' of creatures is proposed to us by God so that through it we may know God insofar as the ordered universe has certain imperfect images and assimilations of divine [things], which are compared to them as exemplary principles to images. [5]

This Christian-Platonist comment yields up a presupposition of Thomas's entire vision and warrants that kind of imaginative commentary on the severer conceptual reaches of his thought in which such English commentators on the angelic doctor as Thomas Gilby both delighted and excelled. [6]

A later generation of English Dominican writers were more restrained. Influenced by the predominantly logical and languageanalysis concerns of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, Gilby's younger collaborators in the Cambridge bilingual Summa theologiae like Herbert McCabe, who died in 2001, or friars, like Brian Davies, of a later generation still, discussed (and discuss) Thomas in a way well suited to the Anglophone philosophical climate of our time. [7] In this modest introduction to the life and work of Aquinas, the present author, though conscious of debts to his brethren of the English Province (in particular, those of the preConciliar period), owes more to the French-language reception of Thomas in the twentieth century: notably, to the metaphysically and dogmatically meaty studies of Thomas's thought produced by the Dominicans in France. [6] Some acquaintance with the flourishing garden of American Thomistic scholarship is also exhibited in these pages.

At certain points, where it seemed illuminating, or, from the standpoint of the good of the Catholic intellectual tradition, pastorally pressing, I have also tried to bring Thomas's thought into critical correlation with theological predecessors and successors - some of a very different ilk, in our own day. The 'line' taken is that Thomas constitutes the classic theological moment of Latin Christendom. This is not only because he had a pre-eminent gift of synthesising the materials of Scripture and patristic Tradition, revelation's witnesses. It is also because he honed a metaphysic that was up to the job of being that revelation's philosophical instrument - in the traditional language, its serviceable 'handmaid'. It is hardly surprising, then, that any major derogation from Thomas's achievement (to be carefully distinguished from enrichment of it by the provision of complementary insights) will tend to create difficulties for the articulation of Catholic faith.

I began this Preface with a citation from John Gray that considers how Thomas's work might be reflected in the visual arts. Christian iconographers have from time to time fashioned 'lovely and exquisite emblems' for the picturing of Thomas himself, in an effort to make manifest what his oeuvre signifies for the Catholic interpretation of the Gospel. Shortly after the middle of the fourteenth century, Tommaso da Modena painted the chapter room of the priory of St Nicholas at Treviso with a number of frescoes of Dominican saints and scholars. Thomas is shown standing before a desk at a lecturer's chair. In his right hand he holds the book of Scripture while his left hand rests on a tiny church onto, and into, which rays of light are streaming from a sun gleaming on his breast. Here is Aquinas diffusing light for the Church - the Church on which, however, he in turn depends. [9] The burning sun emblemises (John Gray's word!) Thomas's teaching that theology, unlike other sciences, being as it is a knowledge of the divine mysteries seen from the viewpoint of divine Wisdom herself - 'a certain impression of the divine knowledge' [10] - requires an ascetic and spiritual effort of purification, at once affective and intellectual. Hence the need in the theologian's life for charity, the supreme evangelical virtue, and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, those ways in which human powers become more finely attuned to divine leading. [11]

In his reading of the Gospel of St John, Thomas himself has this to say:

Just as a lamp is not able to illuminate unless a fire is enkindled, so also a spiritual lamp does not illuminate unless he first burn and be inflamed with the fire of charity. Hence ardour precedes illumination, for a knowledge of truth is bestowed by the ardour of charity. [12]

In retrospect, we can read that as a self-portrait. It is because of the wonderfully integrated character of his wisdom - integrated not only as supernatural with natural but also as thinking with love - that the Church in our day should not leave him as a fresco on a wall, but find inspiration from his teaching and example. Some words of his commentary on Second Corinthians may whet the appetite:

Between ordinary science-knowledge and faith- knowledge there is this difference. The first shines only on the mind, showing that God is the cause of everything, that he is one and wise and so forth, whereas the second enlightens the mind and warms the heart, telling us that God is also saviour, redeemer, lover, made flesh for us. Hence the savour of this knowledge, and the fragrance spread far and wide. 'Behold the scent of my son is as of a field which the Lord hath blessed.' [13]

All Saints of the Order of Preachers, 2001


1. Cited in B. Sewell,
In the Dorian Mode. A Life of John Gray, 1866-1934 (Padstow, 1983), p. 174.

Quaestiones disputatae Dc veritate, q. 9, a. 4.

3. Expositio Libri Posteriorum, I., lect. 8, 1; J. Wébert, 'L'image dans l'oeuvre de saint Thomas et spécialement dans l'exposé doctrinale sur l'intelligence humaine', Revue thomiste 31(1926), pp. 427-45.

4. A. Nichols, op, Dominican Gallery. Portrait of a Culture (Leominster,
1997), pp. 402-3.

5. Super librum Dionysii De divinis nominibus, c. 7, lect. 4.

6. On whom see my Dominican Gallery (Leominster, 1997), pp. 184-222;
for a fair example of his lyrical yet philosophically alert expositions of
Aquinas, try Appendix 10, 'The Dialectic of Love in the Summa', in T.
Gilby, op,
St Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae. Volume I, Christian
Theology [Ia. 1]
(London, 1964), pp. 124-32.

7. See, for example, H. McCabe, St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae. Volume 3, Knowing and Naming God [Ia. 12-13] (London, 1964); B. Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Oxford, 1992).

8. Not that this excludes, pace the older English writers, all elements of a poetic presentation of Aquinas: far from it, as such a study as Dominique Millet-Gérard's Claudel thomiste? (Paris, 1999) suggests. What we find in Claudel is a poet not only instructed by Thomas in the treatises on God as One and Three, creation, the angels, beatitude, but also endeavouring to apply Thomas's metaphysical realism to poetic language with its vocation to order all things to the God who is the plenitude of being, to see language in the light of the divine Word himself.

9. M. Grabmann, The interior Life of St Thomas Aquinas (Eng. translation, Milwaukee, 1951), pp. 1-2. Cf. R. Gibbs, Tommaso da Modena. Painting in Emilia and the March of Treviso, 1340-80 (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 50-87. The figure of Thomas is, unfortunately, badly damaged and therefore could not be used, as I would have liked, as the cover image of this book.

10. The phrase occurs in two important programmatic statements by Aquinas of what theology is, as found in his commentaries on Boethius' Dc Trinitate (q. 2, a. 2), and Peter Lombard's Book of the Sentences (I., prologue, a. 3, sol. 1).

11. See on this A. Gardeil, op, The Gifts of the Holy Ghost in the Dominican Saints (Eng. translation, Milwaukee, 1942).

12. Lectura super Joannem, sub. loc. 5, 16.

13. Expositio et lectura super Epistolas Pauli Apostoli, IL ad Corinthos, 2, lect. 3, with a citation of Gen. 27:27.

Conclusion on philosophy (p 165)

Philosophy, natural though it be, composes a wisdom: a wisdom that works, assuredly, by the light of natural reason, simply, and yet has as its object God himself regarded as the inferred cause of things, as their (in this sense) supreme principle. In a Christian perspective, this will scarcely be able to compete with the theological wisdom that has for its object God in himself and for its immediate foundation divine revelation. Much less could it compete with the infused wisdom whose basis is charity, a wisdom that enables the soul to judge in the light of a knowledge that is by grace, connatural with God's own. But why should we think in terms of competition anyway? These three wisdoms are in accord for they have substantial Wisdom - the divine
Logos - as their common origin.

Now for Thomas - inspired here by the Wisdom books Old Testament quite as much as by the Greeks - it is the task of wisdom to judge and to order. Taken in its subject, then (that is, ourselves), wisdom is an habitual disposition of the mind, a mind-set which, when perfect of its kind, enables us to carry out out that judging and ordering activity proper to wise persons with exactitude and ease.

To achieve this task, Thomas pressed a variety of ancient philosophies into service, as well as the work of more modern commentators thereon, not only Christian but Jewish and Muslim as well.

All of the writings of Aquinas are fugues in which dissonant technical vocabularies are brought into some truthful harmonious relation ... [50]

Thomas explains his aim [51] as so to teach hearers that they may come to a real understanding of the truth. This means. then, the pursuit of reasons, a searching into veritatis radix, the 'root of truth': a making hearers know in what way what is said is true. Without that, so Thomas feared, the hearer may have the certainty things are as the 'teacher of Catholic truth' says they are, but will acquire no real 'science', no thorough understanding, and so depart empty. [52] Part of St Thomas's seriousness as a Dominican, a member of the ordo praedicatorum, ordo doctorum, was that he was not willing to let this happen.


50. M. D. Jordan, Ordering Wisdom (Notre Dame, 1986), pp. 4-5.

51. Summa theologiae, Ia., q. 1, a. 8, ad ii.

52. Quaestiones quodlibetales, IV. a. 18.

Chapter 11: Thomas and the Idea of Theology

In looking at Thomas's picture of theology, it is worth noting at the outset how comparatively little Thomas has to say about this subject. He did not get lost in methodology, or entangled by an over-sophisticated and ultimately obfuscating hermeneutics. He took his Bible, a dece nt metaphysics, the antecedent theological tradition, and got on with the job.

Nowhere does he offer a full account of the activity he calls in one place praecipuum vitae meae officium, the 'central occupation of my life'.' Nor is it easy simply to infer his idea of theology from his practice, because that practice was bound up with a variety of very different purposes. We saw as much when considering 'Thomas in his Time'. These purposes range from initiating beginners in the study of the faith in the Summa theologiae through - on, at least, one widely held view of the matter - arming missionaries with a handbook of arguments in the Summa contra Gentiles, to dealing with highly particularised requests, as in the De regimine principum, written for the Latin king of Cyprus, or his Contra errores Graecorum, written for pope Urban IV as a contribution to his reunion negotiations with the Byzantine Church. So a study of Thomas's 'method' would have to place special reliance on a small number of brief but interesting passages as well as cautious but assiduous reference to Thomas's actual practice. [2]

The prologue to the 'Writing on the
Sentences': The 'modes' of theological

The two places where Thomas's theology is chiefly outlined are his comments on the prologue of Peter Lombard's
Liber sententiarum and the opening question of the Summa theologiae. These passages deal with the teaching of the Christian religion in its fullest sense, and especially with its biblical basis - neither excluding, therefore, what we today would call 'theology' nor restricting Aquinas thereto. So much is plain by considering the earlier of these two texts, the commentary on the prologue of First Sentences, dealing as this does with the nature of sacra doctrina. The culminating issue Thomas raises here deals with the different modes (modi) of discourse used in what he terms 'this knowledge', scientia, 'of which we are speaking'. Six such 'modes' are mentioned, and it rapidly becomes plain that five of them are not what we should immediately think of as theological, strictly, though they are certainly biblical.

Thus Thomas speaks of the modus revelativus, in 'revelatory' discourse, such as the accounts of visions of divine things in the prophetic books of the Canon; the modus orativus, in 'praying' discourse, like in the Psalms; and the modus narrativus or 'narrative' discourse - a term that for him covers, first, the recital of miracles confirming revelation and secondly, telling the story of exemplary actions that draw out the moral implications of revelation. Next, Thomas mentions the modus metaphoricus (also called symbolicus or parabolicus): such metaphorical language assists in representing revealed reality. By contrast, 'exhortatory' discourse in the modus praeceptivus, which he divides into submodes either 'threatening', comminatorius, or 'promissory', promissivus, has essentially the same purpose as in narratives of exemplary actions. The largely scriptural bent of the categories mentioned so far is confirmed by Thomas's commentary on the Psalter, which describes three of them as characteristic forms of biblical discourse.

The sixth and last of the modes of discourse in the comments on Peter Lombard's prologue identifies a form of expression conventionally taken as central to, at any fate, fundamental or philosophical and dogmatic or systematic theology, and this is what Thomas calls the modus argumentativus. Although the commentary on the Psalms finds such argumentative discourse in the Book of Job and the Pauline Letters - and therefore in the Bible itself - it is at this point of Aquinas's 'Writing on the Sentences' that we find for the first time illustrative reference to extra-biblical texts, both the works of the Fathers and the post-patristic doctrinal construction of the author of the Book of the Sentences himself. In First Sentences, Thomas treats 'argumentative' discourse as both defending the faith against errors that deform it and also 'discovering' or 'contemplating' truth in those quaestiones - questions or difficulties - which Scripture suggests to the mind. But if we do regard this 'mode' as central to the theological enterprise, we must also pay due attention to the wider context in which Thomas places argumentation: namely, the entire ensemble of divine revelation as passed on in the Church.

In First Sentences, the characteristics Aquinas ascribes to Christian theology are shared with all revelation-based teaching activity. Like revelation itself, such theology is founded on God's own knowledge of himself and all things. It is both speculative and practical - that is, concerned with objective truth for its own sake (speculative) and immediately directive of human action (practical). It stands higher than every other kind of human knowledge not only because of its object but also because of the light in which it sees that object. For Thomas, all these features belong to the expression of revelation as a whole - and therefore to sacred theology which is one mode of possessing or transmitting revealed truth. This theology - the term as used here must not be confused with that 'divine science or theology' which is one of Thomas's three names for metaphysics - is homogeneous with the word of God, a word it expresses in a new medium. At the start of his 'exposition' of Denys's The Divine Names, accordingly, Thomas declares that, although the affirmations of theology may not, as such, be contained in Scripture, they are nonetheless not 'alien from' or 'other than' its teaching: non aliena ab hac doctrina. [3] Nonetheless, it is clcar from this early discussion as a whole that Thomas's primary desideratum for theology is that it be soaked in Scripture: not for nothing was a high medieval master in theology first of all a lecturer on the 'sacred page'. It is, we can say, vital for the health of Catholic theology, in the twenty-first century as in the thirteenth, that it seek to give to the faithful, at all levels of sophistication, the entire revelation found in Scripture, using all the tools - from humble philology to mystical interpretation - which sane exegesis and the Church's tradition admits.

The Great Summa's first question:
(1) Holy teaching or sacred science?

If we turn now to the opening question of the
Summa theologiae, we find a cognate but rather more speculatively developed account. The Great Summa belongs, of course, to the period of Thomas's maturity, the 'Writing on the Sentences' to his comparative youth. In this question, theology is described as a 'holy teaching' communicative of divine truth. By 'teaching', Thomas means not only a doctrine taught, but also - and primarily - the action of teaching it. (In his commentary on the first book of Aristotle's logical work The Posterior Analytics he explains that doctrina est actio eius qui aliquid cognoscere facit, 'teaching is the action of the one who makes something known'. [4] Later on in the Prima Pars, Thomas will offer a lengthy reflection on the nature of teaching activity. [5] To the astonishment, doubtless, of present-day pedagogical theorists, he sees teaching as one fundamental way in which human beings share in the divine governance of the world. [6] God moves the creation towards the end he has elected for man. Human beings share in, and forward, this process by teaching others about their supernatural destiny. [7]

In Thomas's use of the phrase sacra doctrina, it would be a great mistake to think that the word sacra is just some loosely used pious adjective, It bears its proper meaning of 'divine'. Only God is the Teacher or Doctor in this sacra doctrina, just as only he is the Taught or Doctrine. The rest of us 'are its doctores only as the instruments for the imparting of a veritas which he alone strictly knows' [8]

Apart from the importance of this thought in teaching theologians humility (not their most salient characteristic in modern Catholicism!), it is also pertinent to the much discussed second article of the question,
utrum sacra doctrina sit scientia, 'whether this holy teaching is knowledge'. In his little book Is Theology a Science? Père Chenu claims that sacra doctrina includes the functions of a science in the broadest sense of that word. [9] Theology can work 'deductively', deriving some predicate contained in a subject, or it can operate 'resolutively', working back to presuppositions that render some assertion intelligible. It can also proceed 'axiomatically', establishing the meaning of a term by reference to other terms. It will certainly make use of propositions, entailing, then, acts of judgement - either by way of putting forward an hypothesis, or more categorically saying how things are. [10] For St Thomas, scire is to know something in, with and through its ground, and therefore to know why it is so. Inasmuch as we merely believe the sacra doctrina, we do not (in this sense) know it. And yet the divine Teacher knows what he is teaching, and in sacra doctrina it is his knowledge that is impressed on human minds by faith. [11] According to Chenu, the fact that theological knowledge, building itself up in these procedures into scientific form, remains a participated knowledge, a share in the divine knowledge, does not subvert its (truly) scientific status. After all, a (natural) scientist's knowledge (and the man - or woman - in the white coat is surely the contemporary paradigm for someone with 'hard' knowledge to offer) is not absolute either. Evidence is always evidence within a field, and one 'system' (e.g. physics) can be subsumed under another more architectonic one (e.g. cosmology).

It needs to be said, however, that not all Thomas's 'procedures' are of this type. His theological presentation of the contents of revelation by ways of ideas of convenientia - fittingness, harmony - seems much closer to aesthetics (there are parallels to be drawn here with the work of that great modern theologian of beauty, Hans Urs von Balthasar). [12]

What strikes the present-day theological student as curious -if stimulatingly so - about Thomas's notion of sacra doctrina is the way it runs together the ideas of revelation, Scripture, Tradition and theology. True, all of these express some aspect of a cognitive relationship between man and God. But to say this is hardly to claim they are conceptually indistinguishable! St Thomas's statements, such as - at one point - his seeming identification of sacra doctrina and Scripture, [13] do not imply this. They imply only that for certain purposes and in certain respects sacra doctrina may be defined by reference to one of these disparate concepts. The interrelations are complex, and can be traced only by going beyond the first question. Some of the material surveyed in this 'miniature' helps us to do that tracing.

The Great Summu's first question:
(2) The use of philosophy

The pedagogic, evangelical and even, we might go so far as to say, pastoral character of St Thomas's account of theology is well brought out in the question's fifth article, 'Is Christian theology more valuable (
dignior) than all the other sciences?' Returning the answer 'Yes!', Thomas has to meet the objection that, in point of fact, theology is parasitic on philosophy - and thus to deal with the issue of the place within doctrina of the 'philosophical disciplines'. Thomas writes:

This knowledge [i.e. the holy teaching] can draw upon philosophical disciplines, not because it has absolute need of them, but for the greater clarification of what is conveyed in this knowledge. For it does not draw its premisses from other sciences, but directly from God through revelation. Thus it does not draw upon other sciences as though they were superior to it, but it makes use of them as its subordinates and handmaids, just as master-building employs subsidiary crafts and the civil authority makes use of military arts and sciences.

To drive the point home, Thomas adds for good measure:

And the fact that it [the holy teaching] thus makes use of them is not on account of any deficiency or inadequacy in itself, but is on account of the deficiency of our understanding, which is more easily led to those matters that transcend reason and are set forth in this science by means of such matters as are known by natural reason and from which other sciences arise.

The ancillary role, then, of philosophy in the holy teaching is that of meeting the subjective requirements of the learner. For Thomas, theology is controlled by the needs of preaching and teaching the faith and of the cure of souls - and yet in given cases (the Summa theologiae is one) those very needs may be best satisfied by offering an architectonic vision of truth as an integrated whole. Hence the later Thomistic goal of constructing a systematic, scientific discipline of theology-with-philosophy as an end in itself (albeit, of course, in revelation's service) is not without its 'Thomasian' foundation, a rooting in the historical Thomas Aquinas.

Evidently, Thomas has not abandoned, in the Summa theologiae, his earlier idea of how theology has, importantly, an 'argumentative mode' in the Scriptum super Sententiis. As he will stress in the eighth article of the Summa's opening question ('Is this teaching probative?'), the holy teaching does indeed make use of rational arguments. Thomas expatiates on how such rational argumentation needs to be variously employed if it is to serve the diverse kinds of human being with whom the teacher will deal. Called as he is to work with all sorts and conditions of men, the doctor veritatis catholicae will surely encounter those who already accept some but not all of the items of the doctrina as well as those who, being without faith, accept none at all. The person who concedes some but denies others can be shown how the items she denies follow upon or tie in with the items she accepts. With regard to the outright unbeliever, the teacher cannot prove the faith to her but he can, on the basis of natural reason and without explicit reference to revelation, help her to dissolve false reasonings which are an obstacle to faith.

The need to show, positively, the coherence of the contents of the Creed and, negatively, to rebut arguments against the articles of faith, is one important (bipartite) rationale for the large amount of natural theology the Summa theologiae contains. It is not that Thomas gives priority to rational argumentation vis-à-vis the witness of Scripture and Fathers, the texts that testify to revelation. Rather is it that such arguments are an indispensable constituent of sacra doctrina inasmuch as they constitute irreplaceable equipment for a teacher of the Catholic faith.

There is also another rationale Thomas offers for the presence of a good deal of philosophical-sounding material within a theological work. Revelation does not consist exclusively of truths that go beyond the range of human reason, even though theological science, in his words, 'bears principally on what, by its elevation, transcends reason'. [14] In addition, God has revealed truths that are actually accessible to reason but, alas, not readily so. [15] The chief precepts of the natural law, formulated in the Ten Commandments, are a good instance of this.

And in fact it follows from Thomas's insertion of sacra doctrina into a very human context of teaching and learning that we might expect it to respect the intrinsic nature of human ratio, of natural reason. At the same time, thanks to the supernatural nature of the holy teaching's content, it is also predictable that Thomas will insist that we allow such ratio to be suitably illumined from above by the light of faith.

Reason and faith, philosophy and holy teaching, are not the same but neither do they live in two hermetically sealed compartments. They are distinct, but not unrelated.

To deal with the distinctness first. [16] Faith and reason are distinct in terms of their sources, in terms of their procedures and in terms of their subject matter. Thus, as to sources: faith draws its principles from divine revelation, the foundational truths expressed in the Creed, whereas philosophy acquires its basic principles from intellectual research aimed at gaining a knowledge of the structure of reality. As to procedures: reason proceeds by synthesising the experiential knowledge it gains, analysing this and drawing appropriate conclusions, whereas the holy teaching rests on the divine authorisation of the Creed, while using concepts, principles and observation as well as solid philosophy to penetrate more deeply the meaning of what has been revealed. This (enormous) difference between the sources and procedures of the two is justified by the difference of their subject matter, which in the case of holy teaching is God, inasmuch as he has revealed himself and his saving design for man, and in the case of philosophy is man, nature and - key phrase for metaphysics - being qua being. Here we rejoin that distinction between the anabatic and the katabatic explored in Chapter 3 of this study, on 'God and Creation'.

Thomas was keenly interested in philosophy for its own sake as well as for its possible services to the faith. Despite the limitations of the texts at his disposal, he can be called a critical historian of the philosophical tradition, who grappled successfully with the diverse tendencies of the Platonist and Aristotelian schools. He took philosophical truth with great seriousness, not least because this foundational knowledge also prompts what I have called the 'anabatic' approach from creatures to God.

The distinction, then, between philosophy and the holy teaching is only too apparent. But not less so, according to Aquinas, is the harmony. Both natural reason and the doctrine of faith have their origin in God who has given man the principles of each to work with. Contradiction between them is out of the question. [17] The supernatural order presupposes the natural order and brings it to fulfilment - so happy collaboration between them is the order of the day. Of course, the philosophy in question must be a true philosophy (otherwise it is worse than useless), and one symptom of the putative truth of any philosophical affirmation will be its congruence with what we know from revelation to be the case. The issue of using the right philosophical tool in Catholic theology is an extremely pertinent one today both in dogmatic theology (one thinks of the attempt to deploy Marxian categories in 'Liberation Theology') and in moral theology (compare the employment of Utilitarian ethics in their 'Proportionalist' form in that moral theology known as 'moderated teleology', which found itself under papal fire in the encyclical Veritatis splendor).

The Great Summa's first question:
(3) Turning to the images

Thomas's penultimate article in this question returns to the topic of that '
metaphorical mode' of theological discourse which earlier figured in the 'Writing on the Sentences'. Should the holy teaching use metaphorical or symbolic expressions? At Leo XIII's insistence, the edition of Thomas's works which bears the pope's name began in somewhat unseemly haste with an imperfectly critical version of the Summa theologiae. That Leonine edition reads at this point, 'Is it fitting that "sacred Scripture" uses metaphor?' But it would seem that 'sacred doctrine' is what Thomas really wrote. While, it is true, the article has chiefly to do with the symbolic, metaphorical and parabolic language of the Bible, its principles are meant to apply to any vehicle of the holy teaching. Here again, it is the requirements of the learner that are paramount. God, as Thomas says, provides for all as befits their nature. But the nature of human consciousness is such that it is led from sense images to intellectual understanding. As he will put it in a later question of the Prima Pars:

By the revelation of grace, the natural light of the intellect finds itself reinforced by the infusion of the light of grace; and sometimes, equally, phantasms [images] are formed under the divine action in the imagination of man - phantasms that express divine things more than those we draw in natural fashion from sensuous realities. [18]

Thomas as mystical theologian

That Thomas must have something to say about Christianity's, mystical dimension follows ineluctably from his theological epistemology and even, indeed, from his theological method. The higher knowledge given in revelation is wholly by grace - and therefore the work of God - and yet happens to us as the perfecting of our intellectual natures.
[19] So likewise, theology respects and responds to the intrinsic nature of human reason while at the sam time insisting that, thanks to revelation's supernatural content, reason here must be illumined from above by the light of faith. [20] This light is for Thomas light shining from the End, an anticipatlon of the light of glory. And this can be seen from the tendency of theological reason to abolish itself as a way of understanding and be resolved into intellectus, a simple, unitive, 'at-a-glance' kind of knowing.

But then there is also, in Thomas's corpus, a whole series of references to a way of perception that is closer to things - even divine things - if also more 'confused' than the knowledge acquire by theological study. In the opening question of the Prima Pars he


1. Summa contra Gentiles, I. 2, citing Hilary of Poitiers' Dc Trinitate, I. 37.

2. The virtue of Dom Ghislain Lafont's Structures et méthode dans Ia Somme théologique de saint Thomas d'Aquin (Bruges, 1961).

3. Super librum Dionysii De divinis nominibus, I. 1. xi.

4. Expositio Libri Posteriorum, I. 1. 1.

5. Summa theologiae, Ia., q. 117, a. 1.

6. Expositio et lectura super Epistolas Pauli Apostoli, ad Galatas, c. 1, lect. 5.

7. L. Elders, 'L'éducation des hommes dans I'histoire du salut', Sedes Sapientiae 75 (2001), pp. 15-37. Elders notes how the divine pedagogy in Thomas also embraces such factors as just chastisement of human sin and the testing that is adversity, as well as the role of the ceremonial or ritual (and not just moral and judicial) precepts of the Torah in arousing in Israel dispositions which would permit her to receive Christ.

8. V. White, op, Holy Teaching (London, 1958), p. 8.

9. M.-D. Chenu, Is Theology a Science? (Eng. translation, London, 1959).

10. For a fuller account of Thomas's procedures, see M.-D. Chenu, Understanding Saint Thomas (Eng. translation, Chicago, 1964).

11. In his commentary on Boethius' De Trinitate, Thomas explains that there is a hierarchy of scientiae whereby one 'science' (e.g. music) may draw on another (e.g. mathematics) so as to access truths fully available only to the second, superordinate scientia in each such pair: Super Boetium De Trinitate, q. 5, a. 1, ad v. This model of the 'subalternated science' is, evidently, how he understands theology's scientific status vis-à-vis God's own knowledge.

12. G. Narcisse, 'Les enjeux épistémobogiques de l'argument de convenance selon saint Thomas d'Aquin', in C.-J. Pinto de Oliveira (ed.), Ordo sapientiac et amoris. Image et message de saint Thomas d'Aquin a travers des récentes etudes, historiques, hermencutiques et doctrinales (Fribourg, 1993), pp. 143-67.

13. Summa theologiae, Ia., q. 1, a. 2, ad ii.

14. Summa theologiae, Ia., q. 1, a. 5. Cf. Summa contra Gentiles IV. 1.

15. Summa theologiae, Ia., q. 12, a. 12; Ia., q. 32, a. 1; Summa contra Gentiles III. 47.

16. I rely here on L. Elders, 'Foi et raison, Ia synthèse de saint Thomas', Sedes Sapientiae (2001), pp. 1-20.

17. Super Boetium De Trinitate, q. 2, a. 3, 2: perhaps the fullest programmatic statement in Thomas of the contribution of philosophy to theology.

18. Summa theologiae, Ia., q. 12, a. 13, c.

19. Cf. Summa contra Gentiles, lv. 42.

20. Super librum Boetii De Trinitate, 8, 1.

The remainder of the chapter cannot be displayed due to publisher's limitation.


It is his combination of breathtakingly simple intellectual confidence in revelation and the tireless industry with which mental acumen is set to explore it for the good of souls that makes Thomas so valuable an icon of the Christian mind in the Church today. Thanks to its clarity and comprehensiveness, the apostolic value of St Thomas's thought and writing is very great, and his achievement still needed in the Church.

Even at the catechetical level his work remains of enormous use. One could put together an excellent commentary on the new Catechism of the Catholic Church by reading for instance: for Book I (on the Creed), the Expositio symboli apostolorum and the De articulis fidei; for Book 2 (on the Liturgy), the treatise De ecclesiae sacramentis; for Book 3 (on morals), the De decem praeceptis et lege amoris; for Book 4 (on prayer), the Expositio orationis dominicae. There is a whole course of first-rate Christian initiation here just waiting to be given.

At the level of theology proper, however, the hermeneutical over-sophistication of much Catholic theology today, and the weak metaphysical sense of many of its practitioners, are major obstacles to the retrieval of classical Thomism in seminaries and University faculties. If one believes that in Thomas the tradition of the Fathers at last met a philosophical culture worthy of them, this can only be judged a regrettable circumstance.

Hermeneutics has become a bogey with which to frighten the children, and yet, when not envenomed by a relativistic and epistemologically agnostic attitude towards truth, its message is really rather simple. Appropriating ancient - including medieval - texts requires an effort of understanding and not just philological skills.

Of course, no one can deny that numerous features in my cultural environment as well as my personal life-story
do furnish me with certain schemata, a tendency to understand a text from the past according to preconceived notions. But a more satisfactory hermeneutic will treat such schemata as essentially corrigible, capable of correction by the text as understanding grows. For all human beings share a common potential to be other than they are. They are not obliged to see everything from one viewpoint. It is significant that, in the theological context, those who most insist that, hermeneutically, understanding is always situated and therefore non-objective are, in matters of foundational theology, the mot likely to propose a notion of the primacy of 'praxis' (practical action) over theory - even though in the non-theological context, hermeneutical theory and the Marxian concept of praxis have little or no original points of contact. The denial that we can transcend our situation sufficiently to attain that correct understanding of past texts which alone deserves the name 'knowledge' - in the theological case, the knowledge of revelation found in Scripture and ecclesial tradition - necessarily creates a vacuum which the idea of the primacy of praxis alone is suited to fill. A concept of transformative action so set up as to be defined at any rate dialectically, in part, over against theory of every possible sort, is, for the non-objective interpreter of the Christian's 'story', the answer to a maiden's prayer.

But Thomas would have us see that veritas sequitur esse rerum, 'Truth follows upon the being of things'. This key notion, and its fellow, namely, that truth is the real relation between intellectus, mind, and res, 'thing' - that is, reality - are desperately needed today. The enrichments the Catholic theological tradition has; received from revivals in patristics, liturgics, and biblical exegesis, the broadening of human sense and sensibility it has undergone through encounters with philosophies like phenomenology, personalism, existentialism, and from the (not always so scientific!) human sciences, depend for any enduring value on the perpetuation of a sane and adequate metaphysics in the Church. The hour is striking when a recall to the ontological theology of Thomas is urgent.

My task of helping readers to 'discover' Aquinas is done. This book has presented Aquinas in miniature. It has tried to recapture the lucidity and splendour of Thomas's thought, qualities already apparent in the image chosen for the cover. Reflecting on the confused and unattractive face contemporary Christianity often shows the world, the reader may be struck by the contrast of the beauty this 'miniature' displays.

Copyright ©: Aidan Nichols O.P. 2002

Book Review by Margot Lawrence

The most outstanding of all the Church's scholastic philosophers was born near the ancient city of Aquino near Naples in 1225. He studied at Monte Cassino, then moved to Naples university, where he became a Dominican against the wishes of his wealthy family, who put all manner of difficulties in his way, including keeping him under house arrest.

Later he studied in Paris, the pre-eminent university of the period, where he wrote a commentary on the Bible and received the degree of Master of Theology and defended his Order against opponents such as William of St Amour and the Franciscan supporters of Augustinianism. He died at the early age of 49 and was canonised in 1323.

In 1567 St Thomas Aquinas was ranked by Pope Pius V with the great early fathers of the Church, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Gregory. Only Augustine among theologians has equalled his influence on the Western Church, and Leo XIII in 1879 ordered that his teaching must be the basis of Catholic theology.

Aquinas's greatest work, the Summa Theologiae, was written after 1265, but he only lived to complete the first and second parts, dealing respectively with God, and Man; the third part, dealing with Christ, was finished by another scholar to Aquinas's plan after his death.

Aidan Nichols is himself a Dominican like Aquinas, being Prior of the community in Cambridge, and he gives us a sympathetic and authoritative account of the saint. The book covers both the events of his life and the influence he has had on Catholic thought, and there are also several chapters of expository introduction to his theology that will satisfy the serious scholar while not taking the general reader too far out of his depth.

Thomas has shown us the uniqueness of God and His pre-eminence. In the Bible, God has made himself known to mankind in a double covenant - that of creation and of a saving revelation. His discussion of the Incarnation includes the possibility that its purpose went beyond the repair of the damage resulting from human sin. In his Summa Contra Gentiles he suggests that the Incarnation was intended to give mankind the opportunity of seeing God. Thomas was passionately insistent on the reality of Christ's human will. It was Thomas who first referred to the Church as congregatio fidelium, the congregation of the faithful. In our own day Christianity sometimes shows itself as confused and unattractive. To study Aidan Nichols's book is to realise from the splendour and lucidity of Aquinas's thought that there is another, more inspiring, side of the picture. There could be no better answer to the deplorable views of Stephen Hawking.


Copyright ©: The Catholic herald 2002

Taken from Discovering Aquinas, by Aidan Nichols OP, published and copyright 2006 by Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, London, and used by permission of the publishers.

This Version: 20th November 2009

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