We Protestants tend to have something of a love/hate relationship with Thomas Aquinas. On the one hand, as Protestants, at least we who are Reformed, we value theological brilliance. We admire deeply the mind of Thomas, perhaps even dreaming that had he lived in our day, he surely would have been one of us. On the other hand, as Protestants we, well, protest. That is to say, that brilliant mind was likewise noticed and put to use by Rome. Thomas was a brilliant theologian for the Church of Rome. Brilliant we love—Church of Rome, not so much.
We could spend some time arguing about how good or how bad Thomas’ theology was. Decades ago in these very pages, the equally brilliant Dr. John Gerstner, at my request, argued that Thomas’ theology was essentially Protestant. Perhaps so. I love and admire the man (or rather men, for the same principle applies to our good Dr. Gerstner) for an altogether better reason. It is because we are a proud people that we rejoice in brilliant minds. What truly commends Thomas, however, was not his brilliant mind but his humble heart.
That heart is brought front and center in one legendary story about Thomas during his student days. The story begins with Thomas entering a classroom. The professor is not yet there, but most of the students are. They are all, however, by the window, craning their necks with excitement. Thomas asks what they are looking at so intently. “Thomas, come quickly,” the students respond, “there are pigs—FLYING!” Thomas rushes to the window, only to be met by the uproarious laughter of his fellow students. As the laughter dies down, Thomas gently but potently exposes their sin by saying simply, “I would rather believe that pigs could fly than that my friends would lie to me.”
We can, if we are imbued with the spirit of the age, mock such a trusting attitude. We can scorn such credulity. We can even baptize our cynicism with supporting biblical texts. “Come on now, Thomas. Don’t you know we’re to be harmless as doves, but as wise as serpents?” (Matt. 10:16).
Or, we can see it for what it is—an expression of that godly character which made Thomas a great man. We can see it as that which we should be most zealous to emulate in his life.
Another great and brilliant man of God taught me this when I was a young student. I was a sophomore in high school and deeply and profoundly sophomoric. That is, I thought myself wise, and invested time and energy in cultivating that image. I dressed in black. I listened to ponderous lyrics from esoteric rock bands. I wrote morbid poetry about walls and masks and worms. My father gave me in one fell swoop a rebuke and a challenge. He said to me, “Son, the cheapest way to develop the reputation as an intellectual is to adopt the posture of a cynic.”
What I want is not a reputation as either an intellectual or a cynic. What I want is a reputation for following our Lord Jesus. What I want is a simplicity that cares not a whit about reputation at all. What I want is a guilelessness in my own heart that is so grounded that I expect nothing but guilelessness in my fellow believers. What I want is not to be known as a great theologian and a great man of God, but to be known by God as a humble child of His. All of which means, in short, that what I want is to seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness.
In the end, our battles for reputation are battles to build and to expand our own kingdoms. We want to be the smartest guy in the room. Then we want to be the smartest guy in the church. Then we want to be the smartest guy we know. We want to be king of Smart-avia. Even if we don’t worry about what we will eat, or what we will wear, as those to whom Jesus spoke did, we do worry about what people will think, or worse—that they won’t think of us at all.
The world tells us this is how our life will have meaning. This is how we can have significance. The world tells us that pigs are ever and always earthbound. But Jesus calls us to believe Him. He tells us that if we will seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, then we will receive all we could ever want or need. He tells us that if we will delight ourselves in Him, He will give us the desires of our heart. The question isn’t whether we are smart enough to understand what He has said. The question is whether we are humble enough to submit to what He has said.
I suspect that when Thomas went on to his reward, he did not cast before the Lord that crown that was his reputation for theological and apologetic brilliance. I suspect that he threw that out long before He got there. Instead the crown he cast before that glassy sea was something valuable, the glory of his humility.