In the middle of the 13th century, a young Catholic scholar made up his mind to join the newly formed Dominican order of monks. Though brilliant, the teen was also spectacularly ugly, suffering from obesity and edema, with one eye grotesquely larger than the other. He rarely spoke and was constantly drifting off into his own thoughts. His combination of size, ugliness, and perpetual silence led to the nickname “The Dumb Ox.” His family was so dead-set on keeping him out of the Dominican order that they kidnapped him and held him captive for more than a year. Yet he persisted, becoming one of the greatest theologians of history, today known as Saint Thomas Aquinas.
Thomas Aquinas’ contributions to philosophy and theology rank him among the most renowned thinkers of history. If Augustine was the first great scholar of the medieval period, Aquinas could be considered the last. His general outlook is known today as Thomism. He is remembered for his persuasive case for reconciling faith and reason; his “Five Ways” to prove the existence of God; an apologetics text titled Summa Contra Gentiles; and his massive work Summa Theologica (“Comprehensive Survey of Theology”).
Thomas Aquinas worked to reconcile the prevailing philosophies of Aristotle and Plato with Christian theology. His conclusion was that reason and revelation (faith) are neither opposites nor in conflict. Rather, both philosophy and faith are necessary in order to truly comprehend anything. Aquinas also believed that certain ideas are better understood through reason than through revelation, and vice versa.
Aquinas also held that there are a select few truths that reason can only uncover by applying a significant amount of time, intellect, and knowledge. Since few human beings have access to significant amounts of any of those three things, God chooses to reveal those select truths Himself and save us the work. Aquinas believed that human intellect was not affected by the Fall but that our will was, making revelation that much more necessary for certain truths to be known. Rather than seeing faith and reason as opposing each other, Aquinas saw them as intertwined and mutually supportive.
Aquinas’ writings are still used as valuable resources on Christian thinking. His Summa Contra Gentiles was written to equip apologists for encounters with Muslims. Summa Theologica was his life’s work, a collection of his entire system of theology. Unfortunately, Aquinas died before he was able to finish the Summa. He also wrote volumes on dozens of different philosophical and theological topics.
One of Thomas Aquinas’ most valuable contributions to theology is also one of the most misunderstood. His “Five Ways” of proving the existence of God are the First Mover Argument, the First Cause Argument, the Contingency (Necessity) Argument, the Ontological (Perfection) Argument, and the Teleological (Design) Argument. Contrary to popular belief, these are not the highest, deepest expressions of Aquinas’ theology, nor are they his view of the best or most powerful means to argue for the existence of God. Rather, these five arguments were Aquinas’ response to a request for a simplified, layman-friendly introduction to the defense of God’s existence. Many skeptics attack the Five Ways without realizing that they’re only the condensed versions of much more robust, sophisticated arguments.
Aquinas’ popularity within Catholicism exploded during the Reformation, when his views were used to counter certain aspects of Protestant belief. Today, Aquinas is considered a saint of the Catholic Church. Despite his physical limitations and his early death (before his fiftieth birthday), Thomas Aquinas’ profound thinking is still being used, even today, to defend all aspects of Christianity.