From the Editor: The Eminent Obscure
About a year and a half ago, we listed a number of potential issue topics on a survey and asked you, our readers, to choose your favorites. We figured that you would be most interested in American personalities, ministry pioneers, or maybe worship music—familiar, approachable topics that hit close to home.
You wanted Thomas Aquinas.
Now, Thomas is not exactly familiar. His name is familiar, certainly, but many people know little about him beyond a dictionary definition: thirteenth-century Italian theologian and philosopher, wrote (but never finished) Summa Theologica, developed concepts of natural law and transubstantiation.
None of this rudimentary information makes Thomas seem the least bit approachable. Theologian-philosophers write ponderous, inscrutable books. The Summa is, in fact, a ponderous, inscrutable book. Natural law and transubstantiation are ponderous, inscrutable ideas.
In portraits, Thomas even looks ponderous and inscrutable. Plus, he wears a monastic robe and a halo, which aren’t the hippest of accessories.
When I first saw the survey results, I guessed that Thomas’s main draw was the mystery factor, or the guilt factor—people felt they ought to know more about him but knew they would never research him on their own. In working on the issue, though, I found that—whether survey respondents realized it or not—Thomas’s life and ideas do hit close to home.
Thomas prayed, read the Bible, and preached with a devotion we would all aspire to. He asked, and answered, questions that Christians across time and space have wondered about: Who is God, how does he operate, how can we know him, and what does he want us to do? And while Thomas never addressed such modern conundrums as genetic engineering, Open Theism, and neuroscientific explanations for the soul, his arguments still inform Christian responses to these and many other debates.
Thomas is not a figure you can grasp and move beyond. No matter how deep you dig, there is always more of him to puzzle out. But it really is important and worthwhile to start somewhere. Try the next page.
By the way, you have probably noticed that we stopped printing letters from readers in the magazine. The volume of mail did not warrant a full page.
By Elesha Coffman
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #73 in 2002]
Christian History Timeline: Thomas Aquinas—Storms of the Thirteenth Century
Chronology of key events associated with the life of Thomas Aquinas.the Editors
Thomas Aquinas: Recommended Resources
Additional resources on Thomas Aquinas and his thought.the Editors
Life on Campus
Not all medieval students were monks, but all observed a regimented lifestyle.Matt Donnelly
How You Should Study
In a letter, Thomas shares his tips for academic success.Thomas Acquinas