This article is part of our series, “Cloud of Witnesses: Stories from the Church.” Read more from the series here.
Thomas Aquinas’s family wasn’t happy with him. They’d sent him to a prestigious Benedictine Abbey for his education, but rather than stick with the Benedictine Order, he decided to become a monk in the Dominican order. In doing this, Thomas rejected the esteemed position his wealthy family acquired for him to join a group of monks who renounced worldly wealth and begged for their needs.
His family resorted to drastic measures, abducting him and imprisoning him in their home for almost two years! The whole time, they tried to persuade him to forsake his vows and leave the Dominican order. According to one (perhaps legendary) story, Thomas’s brothers sent a prostitute into his room to seduce him. They hoped that by enticing Thomas to sin he would be forced to leave the Dominican order. As the story goes, the woman entered Thomas’s room, but as soon as he knew her intentions, he rushed to the fire, seized a flaming log, and chased her out!
While we can’t be certain if this really happened, this story gives a bit of insight into Thomas’s character. Simply describing his external roles of medieval monk, scholar, teacher, and author could give us a bland picture of the man. And, by all accounts, Thomas was a large, quiet man. These qualities earned him the not-so-flattering nickname, the “dumb ox.” But beneath this image of a quiet and reserved scholar, we must look deeper and see the conviction and passion that undergirded his intellectual, theological, and spiritual pursuits. Thomas had such conviction that God called him to be a Dominican monk that he would weather two years of imprisonment by his own family without wavering. His passionate conviction that the Scriptures are God’s self-revelation and that philosophy could be a source of truth and aid to theology led him to create one of the most comprehensive and detailed works of theology ever written: the Summa Theologica (Summary of Theology).
More than his formidable intellect, it was Thomas’s conviction and faith his teacher Albert the Great saw when he said, “We call him the dumb ox, but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world.” Albert was correct: to this day, the writings of Aquinas are studied, debated, and revered around the world.
Early Life and Education
Aquinas was born around 1224 in Roccasecca, an Italian town located about halfway between Naples and Rome. At age five, Aquinas was brought to the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino by his family for his education. After the Abbey, Aquinas attended the University of Naples. He began his studies in 1239, following the standard medieval curriculum known as the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music). One notable element of Thomas’s university education was the emphasis on logic, and in particular, the study of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC). Not all Christians at this time agreed that studying Greek philosophy was appropriate for Christians. In fact, theological students in Paris “were forbidden to study Aristotle’s natural philosophy and metaphysics.” Aquinas’s approach stands in stark contrast to this way of thinking about the relationship between philosophy and theology. In fact, Aristotle was a massive influence on the way Aquinas approached the discipline of theology.
In 1244, Aquinas finished at the University of Naples and became a Dominican monk. The Dominican friars decided to send him to Paris for further education, though this plan was delayed until 1245 when Aquinas’s family (who abducted and imprisoned him) finally set him free. He traveled to Paris and spent three years studying under Albert the Great, after which he followed Albert to the University of Cologne. He was ordained as a priest around 1250, but his academic pursuits were not complete.
In 1252, he moved back to Paris to get a Master in Theology degree. For his first year, he studied and lectured about the Bible. The next three years were spent writing a commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, a text which compiled quotes from a variety of theologians. Writing a commentary on the Sentences was a typical task for a medieval theology student. During this time, Aquinas also wrote On Being and Essence. He would stay at the University of Paris for the next few years, teaching and writing until moving to a Dominican priory in Naples sometime in 1258 or 1259. These years are not well documented, but we do know that Aquinas moved to Rome in 1265, where he established a Dominican University. There, he continued writing, including his commentaries on Aristotle and the Summa Theologia.
Aquinas and Philosophy
In his commentary on Aristotle’s work De Caelo (On the Heavens), Aquinas wrote, “The study of philosophy has as its purpose to know not what people have thought, but rather the truth about the way things are.” For Aquinas, philosophy was distinct from the study of history; it was a tool that could be used to arrive at truths about the world, not just the study of great thinkers of the past. Additionally, though philosophy was distinct from theology, Aquinas thought they could have a symbiotic relationship. Aquinas made extensive use of the philosophical ideas of Aristotle in the way he approached thinking and writing his theology, applying the “scholastic method.” The scholastic method was a formula for writing used by many medieval theologians. Aquinas, arguably, took this method to its highest heights. The scholastic method, which finds its roots in Aristotle, follows this pattern in Aquinas’s writings:
- A yes/no question is asked
- Answers that are in opposition to Aquinas’s view are listed
- “On the Contrary”: Aquinas presents a view that disagrees with the objections in the prior section, not necessarily Aquinas’s personal view
- Aquinas presents his answer to the yes/no question
Aquinas’s masterpiece, Summa Theologica, was composed using this method. Though he never finished it, the Summa has had an inestimable impact on the study of theology and the church.
Thomas began working on the Summa in 1265 and continued to write it almost until his death. He endeavored to write a summary of everything we can know about God and God’s relationship with mankind. Despite the magnitude and sheer impossibility of such a goal, Aquinas made impressive strides toward his aims. The Summa comprises three sections, covering the areas of God, Man, and Christ. According to the count on the back of my edition of the Summa, Aquinas asked and sought to answer 631 questions, acknowledged 10,000 objections, and offered responses to each of them! The great length and theological depth of the Summa makes it a daunting book to read, but it’s worth the effort!
Aquinas possessed one of the most brilliant theological minds of anyone in church history. His impact can’t be overstated. His thought is of great value to all Christians. Since he is largely seen as a Roman Catholic theologian, some from different Protestant traditions may balk at reading the Summa. But Thomas died over two centuries before the split between Protestants and the Church of Rome became official. He can’t be categorized solely as a Roman Catholic theologian; rather, he’s a medieval one. This means that Protestants will find much that is consistent with their theological convictions in Thomas, as well as some things which are not (particularly on topics like the Lord’s Supper or justification).
This is a good reminder that we must be discerning readers of all man-made theological texts. They must be measured against the teaching of the Bible (Acts 17:11). Ultimately, even Aquinas himself came to see his writings about God as mere “straw” in comparison to the reality he was writing about.
Around December 6, 1273, Aquinas had a religious experience which, to our knowledge, he never fully explained. Something occurred which was so profound and moving that he ceased all writing. He believed God had given him a revelation. After this experience, Aquinas told his friend Reginald of Piperno, “[E]verything he had written seemed like straw to him by comparison with what he had seen and what had been revealed to him. He believed that he had at last clearly seen what he had devoted his life to figuring out and, by comparison, all he had written seemed pale and dry. Now that he could no longer write, he told Reginald, he wanted to die.” Indeed, it was not long after—on March 7, 1274—that he died on his way to the Council of Lyons.
To the end of his days on earth, Aquinas was a man of faith and conviction. From his youth he was unwavering in his commitment to serving God. As he pursued theological education, he came to believe that we can know God truly through careful contemplation of the Bible with the help of philosophy as an aid to clear thinking. This deep faith and towering intellect combined in the person of Thomas Aquinas to create one of the most influential theologians in church history.
 Ryan Reeves, Who Was Thomas Aquinas and Why Was He Important? https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/who-was-thomas-aquinas-and-why-was-he-important/
 James A. Weisheipl, Friar Thomas D’Aquino: His Life, Thought, and Work (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974), 30. Also see Eleonore Stump, Aquinas,(London: Routledge, 2005), 3.
 Eleonore Stump, Aquinas,(London: Routledge, 2005), 3.
 Eleonore Stump, Aquinas,(London: Routledge, 2005), 1.
 James A. Weisheipl, Friar Thomas D’Aquino, (Garden City: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1974), 15.
 Qtd. in: Eleonore Stump, Aquinas,(London: Routledge, 2005), 9.
 Stump, Aquinas, 4.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1948).
 Stump, Aquinas, 12.
 Stump, Aquinas, 12.