I spent the week before last introducing seminarians to St. Thomas Aquinas as a “spiritual master,” whose manner of teaching the faith remains both lucid and accessible nearly 750 years on. Is this amazing? Not really — if God is alive and speaks to us in his Son, in whom the community of the Church subsists by the Spirit. Our faith is mostly not new and exceeds our control, since it follows from God’s initiation and providential fulfillment.
So says St. Thomas in the first question of his great Summa of theology (readily available online), which may be summarized as follows:
1. God seeks to save human beings by drawing them to himself both by thought and by action, and on both counts God reveals himself in holy Scripture. To believe in God is to know him, and Christian faith centers on a saving knowledge of God unavailable to natural reason.
2. Since God’s own action is primary and effective, Christian theology — “words about God” — starts with his nature and character, his unity and triunity, and relates all things to him, as beginning and end. God’s unique knowledge (scientia) “is one and simple, yet extends to everything,” says Thomas, likely with a text like Hebrews 1:1-3 in mind, which affirms God’s creating and redeeming of all things throughout history “by his powerful word” (cf. Eph. 1.22-23).
3. Christian faith and doctrine therefore also depend upon wisdom, says Aquinas, since God is wisdom and all of Scripture builds on this foundation (see 1 Cor. 3:10). Here the two main aspects of Thomas’s teaching converge as an urging to seek God out both by learning and by “experience.” We experience God by the gift of wisdom, which comes from the Holy Spirit, and especially by putting on Christ in his Passion through all the sacraments, to which Aquinas devotes the last part of his work, as the culmination and completion of the whole. On both counts, Christian theology turns out to be paradoxically practical: because its purpose, uniquely among all the disciplines and sciences, is “eternal bliss,” that is, life with God as our hoped-for end.
Dr. Christopher Wells is Executive Director of the Living Church Foundation.