Thomas Aquinas was a theologian’s theologian. His writings comprise more than ten million words, which he wrote at a feverish pace, standing at a desk. He synthesized not only Christian teaching on doctrine but also the broader questions regarding how Christians ought to think about God. Aquinas was also the first theologian I studied.

Until I started graduate school in theology, my faith was simply part of the furniture of my world. It was familiar and somewhat ordinary, its ability to hold me when I put my weight upon it largely unquestioned. It wasn’t that I was afraid to ask difficult questions. God had been the one I went to with my concerns, my loneliness, my existential need. To treat God as the object of study, entirely separate from this kind of piety, did not come naturally to me.

So I found myself quite unprepared to actually study theology once I embarked upon it formally. Truth be told, systematic theology felt too abstract and unemotional when I first encountered it. The earnest love that motivated my study needed to be bracketed for a time—but that earnest love was nearly all I had!

Systematic theology is a world of precision and definitions. But it can feel at first that the discourse betrays much of what motivates the practice of faith.

My desire to study was led by a kind of earnest commitment that, in my experience, was rare in graduate schools, which often seemed given to rancorous turf wars. Of course I believed in God, and in Jesus Christ his only Son. It was not the articles of the faith that I needed to question at the time; it was what it meant to say, “I believe.”

I had a conversion of sorts, both to theology and to its method, when I read Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. ...

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