Editor’s Note: This excerpt is taken from Chosen Vessels: Portraits of Ten Outstanding Christian Men.
Recently I was asked to identify my favorite theologians of all time. I quickly named them: Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards. Then I was asked to rate them according to their brilliance. Being asked a question such as that is like being asked to compare Babe Ruth with Mickey Mantle, or Johnny Unitas with Dan Marino.
How does one rank the greatest minds of Christendom? Scholars tend to differ in style and scope. The magnitude of their brightness is as the stars in the Big Dipper. Luther was not systematic, yet he gave awesome flashes of insight, powerful vignettes of vision that changed the course of church history. Calvin possessed a systematic mind with the comprehensive grasp of theology that was unprecedented. Augustine was surely the greatest theologian of the first millennium of church history. Though his inconsistencies are well documented, he is distinguished by being one who didn’t have the shoulders of giants to stand on. Rather, his shoulders bore the weight of later giants, and some dwarfs as well.
Though it is fashionable to contrast Aquinas and Augustine as following the disparate paths of Aristotle and Plato, it is vital to remember that Aquinas leaned heavily on Augustine. It is probable that Aquinas quoted Augustine more frequently than he quoted any other theologian. Which theologian did Calvin quote more often than Augustine? None. Luther was an Augustianian monk and Edwards is sometimes referred to as a neo-Augustinian.
The historic debt of all these men to Augustine is so evident that it guarantees a special place to the bishop of Hippo in the gallery of stellar theologians. But who, we ask, was the brightest? Whose mind was most acute, most keen, most penetrating? If the question is posed in this manner, then I am forced into a corner with a two-forked exit. I cannot choose between the two men whose intellects most intimidate me, Edwards and Aquinas. To choose between them is to choose between Plato and Aristotle, of whom it was said that in the realm of philosophy all subsequent work achieved by men like Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, and others, is but a succession of footnotes.
So who was the most brilliant ever? I don’t know. I know the question cannot be raised without the name of Thomas Aquinas being brought to the fore. And I know that he deserves my salute.
Those individuals whom history honors tend to receive awards or titles never pursued or coveted. Such a man was Aquinas. Of the many titles lavished on him, the D.A. degree stands out in particular. We are familiar with degrees and titles of Doctor of Philosophy, Doctor of Laws, and Doctor of Literature. We have Ph.D.’s, D.D.’s, M.D.’s, and Th.D.’s. But Thomas Aquinas alone bears the title Doctor Angelicus.
That Thomas was to be the Doctor of the Angels was not readily apparent to his school chums. His physique was unlike that of the stereotype theologian. Scholars are supposed to fit the mold of the frail, diminutive recluse, with bodies underdeveloped because of a sedentary life. Not so Thomas Aquinas. He was a big man, portly, suntanned, with a large head. He towered over his companions, no less in his massive physical bulk than in his titanic intellect. His appearance was so ungainly as a youth that he was dubbed “The big dumb ox of Sicily.”
The best estimates of historians set the date of Aquinas’ birth early in the year 1225. He was born in a castle near Naples, of noble parentage. He was the seventh son of Count Landulf of Aquino and Theodora of Theate.
His early years show indications that the hand of Providence was on his life. His predilection for theology was marked in childhood. At the tender age of five, an age when the modern child would be glued to the television set watching “Sesame Street,” Aquinas was placed as an oblate in the abbey of Monte Cassino. There he mused on the nascent questions of ontology that gripped his mind for his entire life.
Thomas’ father had big plans for his precocious son. Deeply embroiled in the political machinations between the Emperor and the princes of the church, Count Landulf sought the title of abbot for his son. Thomas politely but steadfastly refused. He borrowed a page from the life of his Lord and said, “It is better to obey the Father of spirits, in order that we may live, than the parents of our flesh.” Thomas was committed to the service of God through the pursuit of an intellectual life. He was driven by an almost monomaniacal passion to answer the question, “What is God?”
At age fourteen Aquinas left the Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino and was sent to Naples to study at the Faculty of Arts. There he came under the influence of the Dominicans and entered their order in 1244. His parents were not pleased by this decision and were further agitated when the Dominican General sought to send him to the University of Paris. On the way, Thomas was kidnapped by his own brothers and forced to return home. He was held captive by his own family for a year, during which he refused to abandon his habit and diligently kept the observances of his order every day. His zeal was so contagious that his sister was converted and his mother so impressed that, like the biblical Rebekah, she assisted her son in escaping from a window.
Thomas made his way to Paris where he first came under the tutelage of Albert the Great. Albert (Albertus Magnus) was to Aquinas what Socrates was to Plato. Albert poured his own titanic knowledge into the head of his most able disciple and followed his career with fatherly love. At the death of Saint Thomas, Albert was deeply grieved. Thereafter when Thomas’ name was mentioned in Albert’s presence, Albert would exclaim, “He was the flower and the glory of the world.”
After three years of study in Paris, Albert took Thomas with him to begin a house of studies in Cologne. In 1252 Thomas returned to Paris. In 1256 he received his licentiate to teach in the faculty of theology. In 1259 he went to Italy and taught theology at the studium curiae, attached to the papal court until 1268. In 1268 he returned to Paris to take up the mighty controversy of his day, the controversy with Arab philosophy. In 1274 Pope Gregory X summoned him to assist in the Council of Lyons. On the journey Thomas’s mission was interrupted by the angels. They came to take their Doctor home. At age forty-nine the earthly ministry of the dumb ox of Aquino had ended.
The most familiar title given Thomas Aquinas is that of “Saint.” Though Protestants are likely to use the word “saint” as a synonym for any believer, following the New Testament usage, there are times when the most zealous Protestant will make use of the term to refer to someone who has achieved an extra level of spiritual maturity. In Rome the title is conferred by the church to a highly select few who have achieved a godliness considered above and beyond the call of duty.
When we think of Aquinas, our first thoughts are usually of his extraordinary gifts of scholarship. His was indeed a prodigious intellect, but his greatness at this point should not overshadow the spiritual power of the man. We might conjecture that his canonization was prompted by his intellectual contributions alone, but the record belies such an idea. Thomas was as noteworthy as a spiritual leader as he was for his theological acumen.
Within fifty years of the death of Aquinas the church conducted careful investigations into his personal life and teachings. Strong opposition to Aquinas’ teaching set in early, and insults were hurled against his memory. But on July 18, 1323, at Avignon, Pope John XXII proclaimed Thomas a saint. The Pope said of Aquinas, “Thomas, alone, has illumined the Church more than all the other doctors.”
The modern theologian-philosopher, Jacques Maritain, was jealous to restore a high regard for Aquinas in the twentieth-century church. In his book titled simply St. Thomas Aquinas, Maritain rehearses the traditions of Aquinas’ spiritual power and provides several anecdotes of alleged miracles that surrounded the saint. It was said of Thomas that though he contended fiercely in theological debates, he was able to bear personal attacks with a tranquil humility. Maritain relates the following:
One day a Friar in a jovial mood cries out: “Friar Thomas, come see the flying ox!” Friar Thomas goes over the window. The other laughs. “It is better,” the Saint says to him “to believe that an ox can fly than to think that a religious can lie.”
Witnesses who were summoned to testify at the canonization process of Saint Thomas described him as “soft-spoken, affable, cheerful, and agreeable of countenance, good in soul, generous in his acts; very patient, very prudent; all radiant with charity and tender piety; marvelously compassionate towards the poor.” If we examine these virtues carefully, we see in them a litany of what the New Testament calls the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Saint Thomas was also a gifted preacher. He would sometimes become so moved during his own preaching that he was forced to pause while he wept. During a Lenten series that he preached in Naples, he had to stop in the middle of his sermon so that the congregation could have time to recover from their weeping.
It is the mystical life of Saint Thomas, however, that has sparked the interest of biographers. Immediately after Thomas’ death, his disciple Reginald returned to Naples and declared:
As long as he was living my Master prevented me from revealing the marvels that I witnessed. He owed his knowledge less to the effort of his mind than to the power of his prayer. Every time he wanted to study, discuss, teach, write or dictate, he first had recourse to the privacy of prayer, weeping before God in order to discover in the truth the divine secrets … he would go to the altar and would stay there weeping many tears and uttering great sobs, then return to his room and continue his writings.
A similar testimony comes from Tocco. He said of Aquinas, “His gift of prayer exceeded every measure; he elevated himself to God as freely as though no burden of flesh held him down. Hardly a day passed that he was not rapt out of his senses.”
Being daily “rapt out one’s senses” is hardly the routine we expect from abstract scholars and philosophers, particularly from someone like Aquinas who was given to the pursuit of logic.
The habit of passionate prayer is crowned by the extraordinary claims of miraculous visitations granted to Saint Thomas. Such incidents raise the eyebrows of Reformed theologians and we mention these accounts with the due reservations of our trade. Maritain recites the following episode as part of the Catholic record of Thomas’ sainthood.
Another time it was the saints who came to help him with his commentary of Isaias. An obscure passage stopped him; for a long time he fasted and prayed to obtain an understanding of it. And behold one night Reginald heard him speaking with someone in his room. When the sound of conversation had ceased, Friar Thomas called him, telling him to light the candle and take the manuscript On Isaias. Then he dictated for an hour, after which he sent Reginald back to bed. But Reginald fell upon his knees: “I will not rise from here until you have told me the name of him or of them with whom you have spoken for such a long time tonight.” Finally Friar Thomas began to weep and, forbidding him in the name of God to reveal the thing during Thomas’ life, confessed that the apostles Peter and Paul had come to instruct him.
Another event occurred in Paris when Thomas was lecturing on the Eucharist. As he went to the altar the brethren suddenly saw Christ standing before him and heard Him speak aloud: “You have written well of the Sacrament of My Body and you have well and truthfully resolved the question which was proposed to you, to the extent that it is possible to have an understanding of it on earth and to ascertain it humanly.”
That sober philosophers like Jacques Maritain report such incidences as simple historical fact is itself testimony to the extraordinary impact Aquinas’ spiritual power had on his contemporaries as well as his future disciples.
One anecdote about St. Thomas is virtually beyond dispute. Toward the end of his life he had a powerful mystical experience that dramatically affected his work. Again we turn to Maritain for his account of it:
Having returned to Italy after Easter of 1272, Friar Thomas took part in the General Chapter of the Order, at Florence, and then he went to Naples again to continue his teaching there. One day, December 6, 1273, while he was celebrating Mass in the chapel of Saint Nicholas, a great change came over him. From that moment he ceased writing and dictating. Was the Summa then, with its thirty-eight treatises, its three thousand articles and ten thousand objections, to remain unfinished? As Reginald was complaining about it, his master said to him, “I can do no more.” But the other was insistent. “Reginald, I can do no more; such things have been revealed to me that all that I have written seems to me as so much straw. Now, I await the end of my life after that of my works.”
After this experience Thomas Aquinas wrote no more. On his final journey he asked to be taken to the monastery of Santa Maria. As he was dying he asked for Viaticum. When he saw the consecrated Host, he threw himself on the floor and cried out:
I receive Thee, Price of my redemption … Viaticum of my pilgrimage, for love of Whom I have studied and watched, toiled, preached, and taught. Never have I said anything against Thee; but if I have done so, it is through ignorance, and I do not persist in my opinions, and if I have done anything wrong, I leave all to the correction of the Roman Church. It is in this obedience to Her that I depart from this life.
There is a strange progression in the achievement of titles of honor and status in the theological world. A freshman student begins his pursuit of knowledge simply with his given name. When he graduates from college, some may now call him “Mister.” When he graduates from seminary and passes his trials for ordination, he is granted the title “Reverend” or “Father.” If he continues his education and achieves a doctorate, he is called “Doctor.” If he is fortunate enough to secure a teaching position on a faculty, he must wait to progress to a full professorship. Then he can preface his name with the coveted title of “Professor.” The irony is this: if he makes it really big and achieves a widespread reputation for his learning, he will achieve the highest honor, that of being known simply by his name. We do not usually speak of Professor Barth or of Doctor Calvin or Professor Kung. The leaders in the field of theology are known by their names. We speak of Barth, Bultmann, Brunner, Kung, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, and Rahner. A man doesn’t seem to make it until his title returns to where he started, with his own name.