Thomas Aquinas gets a bum rap. He is often protrayed as dry, boring and his theology is overly influenced by Aristotle so that he has little to offer to a pastor much less a lay person.
I’m reading Robert Barron’s book Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master. I’ve read books about Aquinas and parts of both of his Summas but it is Barron who debunks the baseless charges that Aquinas is only interested in the mind. Moreover, Barron reveals a side of Aquinas that far too many miss. In 1256 Aquinas became a “master of theology.” What did this entail? Barron says a master of theology had three basic tasks or responsibilities. 1) The first responsibility was to preach. “The breaking open of the word of God for the benefit of the students and faculty at the university was considered the paramount work of the professor. . . . his purpose is never simply to satisfy the curiosity of the mind; rather it is to change the lives of his readers, to transform their hearts, in a word, to move them to salvation.” 2) The second task was “biblical commentary.” Aquinas wrote a number of commentaries which were meant “to illumine and explain the sacra pagina, the sacred page of Scripture.” 3) The final responsibility was “to raise and resolve those thorny questions that emerged from biblical commentary.” (19-20)
That might sound all nice and pastoral but if anyone has tried to read the Summa Theologica he may rightfully ask if this doesn’t smack of an exercise in dry, stale theology which is redolent of philosophy. Hardly what we would call pastoral. It is precisely here that Barron thinks Aquinas is being misunderstood. He writes,
“. . . I think it is possible to rediscover an enormous spiritual vitality in his seemingly arid texts. As we have seen, the Thomistic style is marked by the back-and-forth movement of objection and response, the dialectical play of question and answer. If Thomas’s final purpose is to lure the reader into the attitude of Christ, then the objections can be appreciated, not simply as intellectual counterpositions, but as spiritual counterpositions. The objective is cleverly resisting the demanding spiritual attitude that Thomas is trying to inculcate, and the soul master, Aquinas, in his responses, is patiently tracking him down, correcting him, putting him back on the beam. An incorrect understanding of God is always in correlation with an improper human attitude toward God, with an un-Christlike perspective.”
“Why are there so many questions, so many articles, so many objections and responses in the Summa? One might respond: because there are so many ways that the sinful soul can evade the call to Christlike obedience and openness of heart. Like Ignatius and John of the Cross, Thomas is extremely sensitive to the darkness of the spirit, to the labyrinthine ways of sin, and, again like those two great masters of the soul, he has the patience and the love required to seek out the sinner despite all obstacles. Thomas will not rest until his reader is lured into wonder and ecstasy.” (60)
This more pastoral reading of Aquinas is especially poignant in the Summa Theologica. Take for example the famous five proofs of the existence of God laid out by Aquinas. Barron thinks the purpose behind these has been misunderstood. Aquinas does not call these “proofs” but rather “ways.” Barron says,
“As we have seen, this word via is used at the beginning of the tertia pars to designate the way to God who is Jesus Christ. They are paths that the spiritual master lays out in order to lead the reader finally to the path that alone discloses the God who is really God. It should be abundantly clear that Thomas does not formulate these arguments in the spirit of Voltaire or Descartes, that is to say, as a rationalist unconvinced of God’s existence and endeavoring to prove or disprove it to his satisfaction. The theologian who lays out these ways is someone who has already been grasped by the God of Jesus Christ, someone already on the way and now attempting to lure others onto that path.” (63-64)
Barron walks the reader through the first (argument from motion) and third (argument from contingency) of these ways explicating them from their pastoral perspective. I found Barron’s exposition fresh, cogent, and spiritually rich. If you’ve tried to read Aquinas before and found him arid and boring then let Barron reintroduce you to Aquinas as a spiritual master. Not only will Aquinas come alive for you but he will direct your mind and heart to the great lover of your soul.
Thomas Aquinas is a paperback from The Crossroad Publishing Company. It has 192 pages and sells for $19.95.