St. Thomas Aquinas died on March 7, 1274. This month, then, marks the 700th anniversary of that event, and is a fitting time to offer an assessment of Aquinas’s contribution to Christian philosophy and theology.
Most Protestant clergymen have a small, if not always accurate, core of information about Thomas. They know he lived sometime between Augustine and Luther; but so, of course, did all the other theologians and philosophers of the Middle Ages. They know he effected a synthesis between the philosophy of Aristotle and Christian theology. They know too that his philosophy became for much of the twentieth century the controlling influence on Roman Catholic thought. Most Protestants also recall that Aquinas developed a number of arguments for the existence of God. And a few may remember that his most famous writings are the Summa Contra Gentiles, an apologetic work in which he explained and defended his understanding of the Christian faith against unbelievers, and the massive Summa Theologica, left unfinished at his death. To this list most Protestants could also add that Aquinas was canonized (in 1323); after all, how else does a Roman Catholic become a saint?
Unfortunately, such “common knowledge” about Aquinas is not always accurate. For one thing, it is something of an oversimplification to say he synthesized Aristotle and Christianity. There were many more influences (Greek, Roman, and Arabic) at work in his philosophy than Aristotle. Then too, the theistic arguments that Protestants often borrow from Aquinas turn out to be quite different arguments (and weaker ones, at that) than those he himself seems to have proposed.
Aquinas appeared on the scene at a time when many of his contemporaries believed that Christianity ...1
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