Soundings

He left a legacy that would continue to shape Roman Catholic theology

Sep 2012    

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

THOMAS AQUINAS is perhaps the most influential theologian in the Western Christian tradition, next to Augustine. Born in 1225 at Roccasecca, which stood midway between Rome and Naples, he entered the great Benedictine abbey of Montecassino at the age of five to begin his studies.

When his family transferred him to the University of Naples, the young Thomas came into contact for the first time with the philosophy of Aristotle that was used in different ways in theology by his teachers. It was also at Naples that omas encountered the newly-formed Order of Preachers or Dominicans, which he later joined against the wishes of his family.

He then went to Cologne where he came under the tutelage of Albert the Great, one of the most influential theologians of the period. He returned to Paris to complete his studies, and was appointed to a Dominican chair in the Faculty of Theology. Thomas worked tirelessly as a theological teacher and writer, travelling to various monasteries and institutions in Italy. His output was massive, ranging from commentaries on the Bible and the philosophy of Aristotle to great systematic works (called the Summa) in theology.

At the time of his death at the age of 49, omas left behind a profound theological legacy that would continue to shape Roman Catholic theology even up to today. Many Protestant theologians are also beginning to take a keen interest in the work of this great theological mind. For example, contemporary theologians like John Milbank (associated with Radical Orthodoxy) have sought to interpret omas’ works (albeit through Augustinian lens) and bring it into conversation with Protestant theology.

It is impossible to discuss the scope of Thomas’ achievements in the space of this short article. We will focus on just one important topic that has exercised the mind of this great medieval theologian: human speech about God. Theology is about our discourse about God. However, the words and concepts that we use in theology describe the material world. Since God is not an aspect of this material world, how can human language be used meaningfully to describe him? Of course Thomas was not the first theologian to reflect on this question, which has accompanied Christian theology since its inception. But it was he who debatably offered the most thorough and sophisticated treatment of this issue.

Acknowledging the profound inadequacy of human language, some theologians before omas maintain that it is not possible to predicate any positive attributes to God. us, the best way to “describe” God is to simply say what He is not. is approach is sometimes called apophatic or negative theology. In a sense, apophatic theology is important precisely because it reminds us that we should never be over-confident in our ability to talk about God.

Apophaticism alerts us to the limitations of our language when it is used to describe the mystery of God. God can never be imprisoned or fully contained in our concepts. As Gregory of Nyssa has reminded the church, the moment we think we could comprehend God in our concepts we create an idol. We may say that apophaticism is important because it keeps theology humble.

Although Thomas understands the importance of the apophatic approach, he insists that it is possible to say something true about God. is is because the ineffable God has revealed Himself to us. us, alongside the apophatic approach there must also be the cataphatic.

THOMAS WRITES: “When a man speaks of the ‘living God’ he does not simply want to say that God … differs from a lifeless body.” But it is precisely here that the problem of theological language begins. We can easily understand the statement “Solomon is wise.” But the meaning of the statement “God is wise” is not immediately clear. Is divine wisdom exactly the same as human wisdom? Or does the meaning of the word differ significantly and radically when it is predicated respectively to Solomon and God?

Thomas maintains that there are two erroneous ways of thinking about theological language. The first is to hold that an attribute is used univocally for both God and man. To do this would be to reduce God to the status of a man. To say that God’s wisdom is exactly the same as Solomon’s is to fail to acknowledge the superiority of divine wisdom over human wisdom. e second error is to hold that the attribute is used equivocally when predicated to God and man. is means that God’s wisdom and Solomon’s wisdom are so different that there are no similarities whatsoever between them that could be discerned.

But this view implies that we are not able to make sense of the statement “God is wise”, since divine wisdom is so distinct from human wisdom that we are unable to even conceive it in our minds.

Between the Scalia of univocity and the Charybdis of equivocity, Thomas maintains that analogy is the proper way to understand human discourse about God. When we say that “Solomon is wise” and “God is wise”, we use the word wise analogically, that is, in different but related ways. Both uses are literal. e doctrine of analogy maintains that when we say that “Solomon is wise” and “God is wise”, we are saying something that is literally true about Solomon and God. Unlike the equivocal view, according to the doctrine of analogy there are some similarities between human and divine wisdom. But the doctrine of analogy also insists – in contradistinction to the univocal view – that the wisdom of God is different from Solomon’s wisdom because it is infinitely more superior.

The doctrine of analogy therefore provides an explanation for theological discourse and how such discourse is meaningful. As theologian E. L. Mascall pointed out: “ The function of the doctrine of analogy is not to make it possible for us to talk about God in the future but to explain how it is that we have been able to talk about Him all along.”

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

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