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The God-Saturated Vision of Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas and Theological Method

I was reminded of Thomas Aquinas on a recent occasion in a surprising way. That I thought of Thomas was not all that surprising; what was surprising was the context in which he came to mind. I wasn’t reading a book on theology or Church history, or contemplating the philosophical quandary of Being or anything like that. I thought of Thomas, rather, as I attended the funeral of a Baptist pastor from a small town. While the differences between this man and Thomas are almost innumerable, and while I cannot be sure of what either would say about their common association in my mind, I could not shake the connection. As I sat in the small, packed church building, singing hymns and thanking God for the witness of a faithful man and a race well-run, I was struck by two similarities between the Baptist pastor and Thomas: first, they were both, at that very moment, enjoying the blessed hope of the beatific vision they had spent so much of their lives looking forward to, and second, both of them considered it their greatest vocational calling to teach others the sacred scriptures, so as to instruct their listeners on the blessed hope of the beatific vision.

This aforementioned pastor once said that one of his favorite verses—and one that shaped his philosophy of ministry in a major way—was Jeremiah 3:15: “And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” I do not doubt that Thomas would conceptualize his own ministry in a similar manner. He sought to lead the people of God, and he sought to do that by feeding them with knowledge and understanding. Indeed, this Dumb Ox (as his adolescent schoolmates mockingly called him on account of his quiet and reserved disposition) has provided the people of God with a lifetime of feasting on knowledge and understanding.

In this essay, I hope to show that this association between a faithful, small-town, Bible-preaching Baptist pastor and the “Angelic Doctor” is not a stretch. I will argue that the two kinds of men belong together so long as they share a God-saturated vision of everything and a passion for faithfully teaching and preaching the scriptures. But before I can advance this argument positively, I have to anticipate some objections and head off some misunderstandings at the outset.

Repudiating and Appropriating Thomas

First, we should acknowledge up front that the differences between Protestant pastors (like the aforementioned Baptist pastor whose funeral I attended) and Thomas are simultaneously massive and often overstated. A great Reformation-sized chasm divides the two on a litany of issues in the realm of ecclesiology, anthropology, and soteriology. For example, the papacy, the veneration of icons, sacramentalism, transubstantiation, the priesthood, justification on account of infused righteousness, and more are all doctrinal distinctives that Thomas not only held to, but which he uniquely developed and advanced, and which no Protestant pastor can affirm whilst maintaining his Protestantism. These discrepancies are not insignificant. And yet, as crucial as these differences are, significant ties bind Thomas to virtually all major Protestant traditions and confessions, not the least being Theology Proper, Trinitarianism, and Christology. So many of the Post-Reformation theologians, including the Protestant Scholastics and even the Puritans, took Thomas as a good source on these topics straight down the middle, and their agreement with him on these foundational doctrines are codified in their confessions and catechisms.[1]

Indeed, even in those areas mentioned above where Protestants have always diverged clearly from Thomas, they did not always do so in an absolutely dismissive way. To take the most surprising example, even Thomas’s conception of infusion or infused habits was not regarded by the early Protestants as altogether useless. For Thomas, justification and sanctification was essentially the same thing. When God saves a sinner and grants him the gift of faith, he infuses that faith habit of righteousness, such that the believer’s justification is a process, one and the same with his sanctification. Obviously, this is untenable as a framework for justification for the Protestant who (rightly, I hasten to say) insists that the believer is justified on account of the imputed righteousness of Christ alone, received by faith alone.

So, no, the early Protestants insisted, we are not justified on account of the gracious infusion of Spirit-empowered righteous habits. But does that then mean that there is no category for a non-justifying infusion of Spirit-empowered righteous habits? John Owen did not think so; he simply detangled Thomas’s conception of “infused habits” from justification and employed it gladly as a way of understanding sanctification. Describing the position of the Reformed tradition, Owen writes, “That there is an habitual infused habit of Grace which is the formal cause of our personal inherent Righteousness they grant. But they all deny that God pardons our sins, and justifies our persons with respect unto this Righteousness as the formal cause thereof.”[2]

Thus, J.V. Fesko can say that “the Reformed theologians escorted [the concept of habit] away from the doctrine of justification and gave it a home in the doctrine of sanctification.”[3] Which is all to say, there is a sense in which Thomas belongs to Rome, and the distance contemporary Protestant pastors feel with the modern Roman Catholic Church today, they will understandably feel with Thomas. But we may be so bold as to say that Thomas does not exclusively belong to Rome, and even those areas where we differ from him should not be casually dismissed in a flippant manner. Thomas may be both appropriated and repudiated by Protestants, and sometimes even on the same topic.Thomas Aquinas may be both appropriated and repudiated by Protestants, and sometimes even on the same topic. Click To Tweet

A Renaissance

Second, we should acknowledge something of a renaissance of Thomas scholarship, which makes a second glance necessary. One of the reasons why my association between Thomas and a Baptist pastor may seem surprising is that for the longest time, Thomas was thought of almost exclusively as a theologically minded philosopher. It is understandable that this was the status quo for Thomas for a great many years, considering the fact that of the great glacier that is his body of work, the tip of the iceberg that was handed down from generation to generation, even in Roman Catholic circles, was a carefully curated selection of his philosophical writings. This gives the impression that he was first and foremost a natural philosopher. It is in this light that modern Protestant theologians will often decry Thomas for his “Nature/Grace Dualism.” But, as is mentioned in the introduction to their excellent book, Aquinas Among the Protestants, Manfred Svensson and David VanDrunen note how this is a mischaracterization. They acknowledge that “this sort of critique has sometimes rested upon an accurate perception of the kind of Thomism that one could find in contemporary Roman Catholicism,” but “as the thought of Aquinas himself has reemerged from the fruitful twentieth-century engagement with his work… interpreting Thomas [in this way] can only be regarded as a caricature.”[4]

A Fresh Look at Thomas

This moment in history is the richest one yet with regard to accessibility to Thomas’s corpus. To keep this in perspective: John Calvin and Martin Luther likely did not have the chance to read select quotes from Thomas (and sometimes those quotes were misrepresented to them by late medieval nominalists), let alone entire books by Thomas. But anyone reading this essay right now can open up a new tab and begin reading his entire Summa theologia in modern English. In fact, Thomas’s biblical commentaries are still, currently, being translated. What does that mean, practically? It means, in part, that many of the narratives and impressions about Thomas formed and propagated over the past couple hundred years are in the awkward situation of being confronted with a Thomas they misunderstood. It means that there is much secondary literature that has become debunked. And, relevantly, it means that many a favorite Protestant trope against Thomas may have to be retired.Many of the narratives about Thomas propagated over the past couple hundred years are in the awkward situation of being confronted with a Thomas they misunderstood. Click To Tweet

Of the several points of Thomas’s persona that have become clear with the renewed interest of his primary source material, we may say that, philosophically speaking, he was a synthesizer not only of Christianity and Aristotle, but also of Plato and Aristotle,[5] he was a thoroughgoing Augustinian,[6] and, above any other calling, he thought of himself as a theologian and an instructor of sacred scripture. The picture of Thomas we are often used to imagining—that of an austere man stuck in his own contemplations and unable and unwilling to simplify and communicate to a broad range of listeners—is one he himself would have found disappointing and baffling. In fact, he even refuted such an approach in the opening page of his Summa theologiae. 

One of the features that made the then-novel order (the Dominicans) that Thomas joined as a young man so unique is that it moved away from the insularly monastic orders of previous eras to take on an outward-facing disposition. In other words, Thomas joined an order of preachers and teachers, tasked with educating future priests as well as laity, and refuting erroneous doctrine. The “O.P.” designation we find next to the names of some Roman Catholic authors is an indication of that man’s association with the same order Thomas joined, and it stands for “Order of the Preachers.” But the most significant feature of Thomas, and the one I wish to commend to Protestant pastors explicitly, is his God-saturated vision, and its implication on theological methodology.Thomas joined an order of...preachers. Click To Tweet

Thomas’s Theological Methodology

For Thomas, it was not so much a tactic to make God the center of everything as it was a compulsory, metaphysical necessity. Theology was the queen of the sciences. He actually functioned that way; every other science was, for him, by definition, a sub-category of theology. For Thomas,

God is truly the object of this science [i.e., Theology]… in sacred science, all things are treated of under the aspect of God: either because they are God Himself or because they refer to God as their beginning and end. Hence it follows that God is in very truth the object of this science. This is clear also from the principles of this science, namely, the articles of faith, for faith is about God. The object of the principles and of the whole science must be the same, since the whole science is contained virtually in its principles.[7]

This, in a nutshell, is Thomas’s methodology: Theology is about God and all things in relation to God.[8] Now, this narrow specificity may sound stifling and frustrating, but bear in mind the (literal) cosmic scope this implies: by making theology about God and all things in relation to God, Thomas’s vision is universally expansive. Everything that exists besides God exists from God, and can therefore only be understood properly in relation to God. This is how he puts it in his Compendium of Theology:

God’s first effect in things is existence itself, which all other effects presuppose, and on which they are founded. And everything that exists in any way is necessarily from God. For in all ordered things, we find universally that something first and most perfect in an order causes things subsequent in that order… Existing belongs to him by his essence, and existing belongs to other things by participation. For the essence of anything else is not its existing since there can be only one existing that is absolute and intrinsically subsisting… Therefore, God necessarily causes existing in everything that exists.[9]

This point is worth a lifetime of reflection: “existing belongs to him by his essence, and existing belongs to other things by participation.” God does not receive his existence from another. He is a se—of himself—and so for him alone, existence and essence are identical. He, alone, exists necessarily—he cannot not exist. On the flipside, nothing that is creaturely is necessary. It is possible for me to not exist, and my lack of existence would not equate to a metaphysical depreciation of Being.Existing belongs to him by his essence, and existing belongs to other things by participation. -Thomas Aquinas Click To Tweet

Of course, this can all start to sound very befuddling and overly abstract, but here’s the point: everything that has being has been gifted existence. There is an asymmetry between God’s existence and his creation’s existence; his life is intrinsic, ours is derived. All of our life is ultimately from God. This is what it means for us to participate in God; we receive our existence from the benevolent generosity of his existence. But this is not some kind of pantheism, wherein our existence is some kind of accretion of him, as if his existence and ours are the same stuff. No, our existence is from him, but his existence is not from us. His life does not diminish as he gratuitously grants life to us. The miracle of his creative activity is that our life is really ours—we really do exist, it is not a figment of imagination or simply a mass of his own existence moved around a bit—and it is always received. We truly exist, and we truly exist from God. Summarizing this aspect of Thomas’s thought, G.K. Chesterton, in his excellent little biography of Thomas, writes:

Everything is Being; but it is not true that everything is Unity. It is here, as I have said, that St. Thomas does definitely, one might say defiantly, part company with the Pantheist and the Monist. All things are; but among the things that are is the thing called difference, quite as much as the thing called similarity. And here again we begin to be bound again to the Lord, not only by the universality of grass, but by the incompatibility of grass and gravel. For this world of difference and varied beings is especially the world of the Christian Creator; the world of created things, like things made by an artist; as compared with the world that is only one thing, with a sort of shimmering and shifting veil of misleading change, which is the conception of so many of the ancient religions of Asia and the modern sophistries of Germany. In the face of these, St. Thomas still stands stubborn in the same obstinate objective fidelity.[10]

This is what it means for God to be the formal and efficient cause of all things, and for him to be the source of the material cause for all things. All things are from and through God. But Romans 11:36 does not stop there; all things are not only from and through God, but also to God. And so God is also final cause of all things—that is, the telos of all things; all things are for God.This is what it means for us to participate in God; we receive our existence from the benevolent generosity of his existence. Click To Tweet

And this means that the theologian should not be merely concerned with bending his thoughts toward God—either when considering God in himself or all things in relation to God—he should also bend his soul toward God. The beatific vision—the blessed hope of heaven, the vision of God—was, for Thomas, the great brightness that lit up the entire theological enterprise. The faithful pursuit of virtue in service to God was, for Thomas, part of the theological task. “And so we also call holy all things ordered to God. Therefore, we appropriately call the Spirit, who implants in us the love by which God loves himself, the Holy Spirit.”[11] For Thomas, all our desire for knowledge is directed toward this end. Since all things are from and through and to God (Rom. 11:36), the satiation of our longing to know or love anything will terminate only in God: “Therefore, our natural desire to know cannot be at rest in us until we know the first cause by its essence, not in any way. But the first cause is God… Therefore, the final end of an intellectual creature is to see God essentially.”[12]

The “theology” in Thomas’s natural theology

This is how we should come to appreciate the “theology” in Thomas’s natural theology. His interest in everything was due to his interest in God. Loving God made him interested in all things in relation to God. The result of this interest was not merely a handful of theories or observations, but, in a very real way, a cohesive cosmos. Again, Chesterton is helpful here to highlight Thomas’s “strong personal interest in things subordinate and semi-dependent, which runs through his whole system… it was this quality of a link in the chain, or a rung in the ladder, which mainly concerned the theologian in developing his own particular theory of degrees.” And so while “the nineteenth century left everything in chaos… the importance of Thomism to the twentieth century is that it may give us back a cosmos.”[13] Later on, Chesterton goes on to show how The beatific vision—the blessed hope of heaven, the vision of God—was, for Thomas, the great brightness that lit up the entire theological enterprise. Click To Tweet

there is a sort of purely Christian humility and fidelity underlying his philosophic realism. St. Thomas could as truly say, of having seen merely a stick or a stone, what St. Paul said of having seen the rending of the secret heavens, ‘I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.’ For though the stick or the stone is an earthly vision, it is through them that St. Thomas finds his way to heaven.[14]

While there are many ways Protestants can and should benefit from engagement with Thomas,[15] this God-saturated vision is perhaps the most important. In an age where compartmentalization and myopic specialization abounds, pastors should seek to foster in their congregants the kind of Godward intensity that characterized Thomas.

The God-saturated cosmos of Thomas’s theology is none other than the God-saturated cosmos described in the scriptures. To put the matter frankly, there is much that Protestant pastors can glean from Thomas, and they simply should not be content to let the Roman Catholics have all the fun with him.


Endnotes

[1] For example, see Richard Muller’s magisterial Post-Reformation Dogmatics.

[2] John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, quoted in J.V. Fesko, “Aquinas’s Doctrine of Justification and Infused Habits in Reformed Soteriology” in Aquinas Among the Protestants, Manfred Svensson and David VanDrunen, eds. (Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2018), 254.

[3] Ibid., 255.

[4] Manfred Svensson and VanDrunen, “Introduction: The Reception, Critique, and Use of Aquinas in Protestant Thought,” in Aquinas Among the Protestants, 4.

[5] See Sebastian Morello, The World as God’s Icon: Creator & Creation in the Platonic Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Brooklyn, NY: Anglico Press, 2020).

[6] Michael Dauphinais, Barry David, and Matthew Levering, eds., Aquinas the Augustinian (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2007).

[7] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologia, 1a.1.7.

[8] For a great treatment on Thomas’s theological method of viewing God and all things in relation to God, see Tyler R. Wittman, God and Creation in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

[9] Thomas Aquinas, Compenium of Theology, Richard J. Regan (trans.) (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009) I, 68.

[10] G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (London, UK: Hodder and Stoughton, 1943), 143-144.

[11] Aquinas, Compendium of Theology, I, 47.

[12] Aquinas, Compendium of Theology, I, 104.

[13] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, 132.

[14] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, 142.

[15] For example, in addition to the obvious areas of theology proper, trinitarianism, and Christology, there is room for deep engagement with Thomas on the topics of anthropology, natural law and virtue ethics, and biblical interpretation. For fruitful examples of what this might look like, see Matthew LaPine, The Logic of the Body: Retrieving Theology Psychology (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020); Daniel Westberg, “The Influence on Protestant Ethics,” and David S. Sytsma, “Thomas Aquinas and Reformed Biblical Interpretation: The Contribution of William Whitaker” in Svensson and VanDrunen, Aquinas Among the Protestants.

Samuel G. Parkison

Samuel G. Parkison (PhD, Midwestern Seminary) is associate professor of theological studies and director of the Abu Dhabi Extension Site at Gulf Theological Seminary in the United Arab Emirates. Before coming to GTS, Samuel was assistant professor of Christian studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and pastor of teaching and liturgy at Emmaus Church in Kansas City. He is the author of Revelation and Response: The Why and How of Leading Corporate Worship Through Song (Rainer, 2019) and Thinking Christianly: Bringing Sundry Thoughts Captive to Christ (H&E, forthcoming). You can follow Samuel on Twitter.

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