Thomism is a philosophical and theological school of thought based on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a Dominican friar and Catholic priest who lived in Italy in the 13th century. Aquinas sought to reconcile faith and reason, theology and philosophy, into a cohesive system grounded in Aristotelian philosophy and Catholic theology. Some key aspects of Thomism include:
- A heavy reliance on Aristotelian philosophy, including Aristotle’s metaphysics and epistemology.
- The use of reason to elucidate faith and make natural theology intelligible.
- The view that both faith and reason discover truth, with faith surpassing reason.
- An anthropology that sees human beings as a body-soul composite.
- Proofs for the existence of God using logic and observation of nature.
- A eucharistic theology affirming transubstantiation.
- A virtue ethics based on the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.
- A defense of natural law theory in ethics and politics.
- A metaphysics that affirms the real distinction between essence and existence in creatures.
Aquinas wrote extensively across numerous theological and philosophical topics. Some of his major works include:
- Summa Theologica – Aquinas’ masterwork in systematic theology, spanning over 3,000 pages.
- Summa Contra Gentiles – An apologetics text defending Christian doctrine through reason.
- Commentaries on Aristotle – Detailed exegesis on Aristotle’s main texts.
- Disputed Questions – Writings on specific theological debates.
- Compendium Theologiae – A briefer summary of Christian doctrine.
- On Being and Essence – A metaphysical treatise on essence and existence.
Aquinas revolutionized Western philosophy and theology. Some of his key contributions and novel ideas included:
- Harmonizing faith and reason as complementary paths to truth.
- Using Aristotle’s philosophy to give rigorous arguments for God’s existence.
- Defending Christianity from its detractors through appeals to reason.
- Infusing Christianity with Greek metaphysical concepts.
- Reconciling Platonic and Aristotelian strains of thought.
- Expanding natural law theory as a basis for law and ethics.
- Reinvigorating the theology of sacraments and Eucharist.
- Creating a vast, systematic theology synthesizing faith and philosophy.
Aquinas proved highly influential for centuries after his death. Thomism dominated Catholic theology for hundreds of years. Key Catholic documents reflecting Thomistic thought include the Council of Trent and Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris. Thomism continues to exert significant influence on modern Catholic theology.
However, Thomism has faced criticism as well. Some argue Aquinas overly Aristotelianized Christianity. Others claim he creates an unbiblical synthesis between faith and reason. Reformed theology in particular has objected to aspects of Thomism that appear to conflict with sola scriptura and sola fide. Despite such critiques, Aquinas remains one of the most renowned theologians in church history.
The theology of Thomas Aquinas spans across diverse topics, given the scope of his writings. Some specific theological issues and Aquinas’ views include:
The Existence of God
Aquinas presented five logical arguments for God’s existence in the Summa Theologica. These five ways seek to demonstrate God’s existence through reason alone. The arguments rely on observation of the natural world and logical deductions about causation, contingency, perfection, and intelligent design. The five ways progress from empirical evidence to the assertion of a supreme unmoved mover, first cause, necessary being, perfect being, and intelligent designer as God.
The Nature of God
According to Aquinas, God’s existence can be proven rationally, but His nature and attributes must be understood through revelation. Aquinas upheld classical theism in affirming God’s simplicity, perfection, goodness, infinity, immutability, and eternity. God transcends space, time, and human language. Yet natural theology can speak meaningfully of God in an analogical sense. Aquinas also expounded on the doctrine of the Trinity.
Against eternal universe models, Aquinas asserted that God created the universe ex nihilo. Creation displays order, diversity, and gradations of being. Aquinas argued that an eternal universe would reduce the Creator-creature distinction and impede divine sovereignty. He believed philosophy could demonstrate the fact of creation, but faith is required to grasp the underlying mystery.
Aquinas viewed humans as a hylomorphic composite of matter (the body) and form (the soul). The soul confers rational powers and animates the body. Humans have a spiritual, immortal soul that survives bodily death. The soul’s faculties include intellect and will. Through the intellect, humans can grasp universals and reason to knowledge of immaterial realities. But some divine truths exceed human reason and require revelation.
Aquinas adhered to an Aristotelian virtue ethics rooted in human nature and directed toward the human good and happiness. Moral virtues perfect human faculties and orient people toward the good. The natural law, discernible through reason, provides universal moral precepts. But revealed divine law is higher than natural law. Aquinas discussed the relationship between intellect, will, virtue, vice, and human acts in moving toward the good.
Aquinas believed certain truths about God are accessible through natural reason apart from special revelation. His natural theology demonstrates God’s existence, nature, and aspects of His work in creation. But sacred doctrine that exceeds reason must come through revelation. Philosophy and theology thus form complementary paths to truth. Natural theology grounds faith seeking understanding, illuminating Christianity’s credibilia through reason.
Aquinas discussed politics, law, justice, and authority across his writings. He affirmed that political authority derives from God but resides primarily in the people. The purpose of government is to promote the common good. Laws should uphold natural law and embody general justice. Aquinas argued for moderate constitutional government, not autocracy. He supported legitimate resistance against tyranny.
Aquinas expounded a robust theology of the seven Catholic sacraments. In baptism, original sin is removed and sanctifying grace infused. Confirmation strengthens and perfects baptismal grace. The Eucharist contains Christ’s real body and blood by transubstantiation. In confession, priests absolve penitents of sins. Matrimony reflects Christ’s union with the Church. Holy orders impart sacramental authority to priests. The anointing of the sick aids recovery.
Aquinas explicated the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. While the bread and wine’s accidents remain, their substance changes into Christ’s body and blood. This supports Eucharistic adoration and concerns for proper reverence. Aquinas set forth doctrines of transubstantiation and concomitance explaining Christ’s eucharistic presence. He also affirmed the sacrificial nature of the Mass as making Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross present.
Salvation in Aquinas’ theology comes through grace and consists in the beatific vision of God after death. Grace perfects human nature and elevates people to share in the divine life. Initially given in baptism, grace is lost through mortal sin and restored through penance. Good works merit increases in grace and reward. But grace always precedes and enables merit through divine favor. Heaven will fulfill human longing for perfect truth, goodness, and beauty.
Mary has a special place in God’s redemptive work in Aquinas’ theology. As Mother of God, she participated uniquely in Christ’s mediation. Remaining ever-Virgin, she was conceived immaculately to be a pure vessel for the Incarnation. In bearing Christ, she spiritually bore all the faithful as their mother. Mary’s assumption into heaven reflects the perfection of grace in her. She intercedes for the Church as queen of heaven.
Aquinas synthesized theology through appeals to scripture, reason, Church fathers, and philosophy. Scripture provides the foundation for sacred teaching. Reason elucidates faith’s mysteries to deepen understanding. Church fathers supply ancient wisdom. Philosophy supplies the raw material for constructing and defending theology. Aquinas thus creates a theological system informed by multiple authorities and ways of knowing.
Aquinas drew heavily on Aristotle’s philosophy, including his metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, and logic. He incorporated elements of Neo-Platonism but avoided its excesses. Other influences included Augustine, Averroes, Avicenna, Dionysius, and Boethius. Aquinas reconciled these diverse streams in service of theological reflection. His contributions moved medieval philosophy from Platonic to Aristotelian trajectories.
Legacy and Impact
Thomism remains highly influential in Catholic theology centuries after Aquinas’ death. Aquinas systematically organized theology in a vast synthesis. His philosophical theology continues to shape key areas like natural law ethics, sacramental theology, metaphysics, and political theory. Catholic scholasticism builds on his methods and insights. Though not officially doctrinal, Thomism succeeded as the dominant lens for Catholic theology and philosophy.
However, Thomism has also faced criticism within Catholicism and beyond. Some charge that Aquinas overly relied on pagan philosophy over scripture. The relationship between nature and grace has been a recurring tension point in Thomistic debates. Neo-Thomism has reinterpreted Aquinas to engage modern philosophy. Theologians like Karl Rahner moved Catholic thought in new directions. Nonetheless, Aquinas’ intellectual acumen, syntheses, and influence make him an eminent figure in Western thought.
In summary, Thomism represents the philosophical and theological approach rooted in the work of Thomas Aquinas. It synthesizes Christian theology and Aristotelian philosophy into a vast system spanning metaphysics, ethics, apologetics, sacramental theology, and biblical exegesis. Thomism had an immense impact on medieval and modern Catholic thought. Aquinas brought rigorous human reason to bear in elucidating articles of Christian faith, yielding fresh insights that profoundly shaped Western philosophy and theology.