1 John 3:1-7
When I was in my teens and early twenties, Evangelicals were not known for writing great systematic theology. What they were known for was apologetics, which fit in with their focus on evangelism. My first introduction to the realm of Christian thought was in the field of apologetics. I read everything I could get my hands on by writers like C. S. Lewis, but also by writers I’m sure most of you have never heard of. When I first started reading real Systematic Theologians, it was largely because of their apologetic value. I liked Thomas Aquinas because of his Five Ways to demonstrate the existence of God. I liked Wolfhart Pannenberg because of his arguments for the resurrection of Jesus.I was rather proud of my abilities as an apologist and was convinced that I could prove that Christianity was true based on irrefutable arguments for the existence of God and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
One summer I was working one of those temporary jobs you get to pay your way through school and I got to know a young man my own age who had grown up Episcopalian, had been an acolyte when he was a teenager, and was now an atheist. I was trying to convince him that the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus was fairly solid, and he blurted out “What if someone could come up with a good argument that John F. Kennedy had risen from the dead? What difference would it make?” As you can imagine, my apologetic arguments had no influence whatsoever on this guy, and after the job ended, we lost track of one another, and I never saw him again.
I teach a course in Christian Apologetics here at Trinity, but my approach is now very different from what it was then. Karl Barth is supposed to have said somewhere that the best apologetics is good systematic theology, and I have come to agree. The problem with the apologetic approach that I first studied as a teenager is that it makes no real connection to the central subject matter of Christian faith. These days I am not particularly interested in the question of whether someone can make a rational argument for the existence of a first cause of the universe. I am much more interested in the question of whether the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ and who raised him from the dead exists. It’s not that I think that the traditional philosophical and historical arguments don’t work. They are probably as valid as they ever were. However, I also think that young man who compared my apologetic arguments for the resurrection of Jesus to the case for the resurrection of John F. Kennedy had a point. The most important question is not whether there is a strong historical argument that a first century Jew named Jesus of Nazareth turned out to be alive three days after he was crucified. The really important question is whether the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ the Son of God raised him from the dead.
I first became acquainted with the writings of Thomas Aquinas when I was an undergraduate philosophy major. I became interested in Aquinas because I was interested in apologetics, and I thought that Aquinas would be helpful for doing things like providing arguments for the existence of God. I later shifted my academic focus from philosophy to theology, and have found Aquinas to be a lifelong companion on my theological journey. I am not a Roman Catholic but an Anglican, and I have often encountered a kind of discomfort when other Christians who stand on this side of the Reformation hear about my interest in Aquinas. Aquinas is considered to be the quintessential Roman Catholic theologian, and, accordingly, is regarded with suspicion by many non-Roman Catholic Christians – especially Evangelicals. My ad hoc response would be much like that of Christian Ethicist Stanley Hauerwas who, when he was first teaching at the University of Notre Dame, had to respond to concerns that a Methodist theologian was teaching about Thomas Aquinas. Hauerwas countered that Aquinas lived three hundred years before the Protestant Reformation, before there were any distinctions between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Aquinas was not therefore a Roman Catholic theologian, but a church theologian, and so a Methodist had just as much right to claim him as would a Roman Catholic. Recently D. Stephen Long, another Methodist theologian, has argued persuasively that Protestants should recognize that Aquinas actually played a significant role in the history of Reformation theology, and needs to be reclaimed by Protestants. If Aquinas can be claimed by two Methodist theologians, I would argue that he certainly can be claimed by Anglicans. In what follows, I hope to provide an introduction to Aquinas’s thought in a way that might be helpful for Reformation Christians, especially Evangelicals.
Who was Thomas Aquinas?
Thomas Aquinas was born sometime around 1224 or 1225 as the youngest son of lesser nobility, related to the Counts of Aquino, in the family castle of Roccasecca (in southern Italy, halfway between Rome and Naples). His family had hopes that young Thomas would enter the Benedictine order and would perhaps eventually become an abbot, but he had other ideas. There was a new kind of religious order at the time, the friars, who differed from traditional monks in that they were not cloistered – that is, they did not live in monasteries – but lived among the laity and engaged in mission in the everyday world. Friars came in two varieties, the Friars Minor (O.F.M.) or Franciscans (founded by St. Francis of Assisi) and the Order of Preachers (O.P.) or Dominicans (founded by St. Dominic). As their name suggests, the Order of Preachers focused on preaching, but also on study and teaching, so they had a more academic focus than did the Franciscans. Against his family’s wishes, the young Aquinas joined the Dominicans in 1244. His family responded by having Thomas kidnapped and held him captive for a year or so. He eventually escaped, and in 1245 the Dominicans sent him to the newly founded University of Paris, a budding intellectual center, where he studied under Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great). In Paris, Thomas studied Aristotle’s ethics – Aristotle’s major works were now being translated into Latin for the first time – and the writings of the Eastern Christian mystical theologian Pseudo-Dionysius.