St. Thomas Aquinas and Four Marks of the Church Term Paper

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Thomas Aquinas

Within the writings and the thinking of Thomas Aquinas - with reference to the four Medieval senses of Scripture (moral, literal, allegorical and anagogical or mystical interpretation) - there is an abundance of original and worthy ideas that have more than stood the test of time. This paper explores and reviews Aquinas' theories and philosophies and presents relationships between the four senses. The papers attempts to answer the question, do the four senses prepare the way for the Reformation?

Ernest Rhys edited the book Everyman's Library, circa 1939, which contains selected writings from Aquinas. Rhys suggests in his Preface that while other philosophers have made "great contributions" to the "stock of human wisdom," Aquinas - "with a quiet originality" - gathered up...the wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome and Judaism..."

And using that wisdom, Rhys continues, Aquinas presented Christian philosophy that offered a "pattern to the diverse activities of nature and man." Rhys goes on to say that while Aquinas was not "a literary genius" - his style is "dry" and sometimes "incomprehensible for general reading" - he offers the reader "enlightened common sense" (Rhys xi).

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Aquinas' arguments do not always tend to follow one another in logical order in Rhys' book, but nevertheless there is logic in his narrative if one is willing to dig into the narrative and not be confused or lost within the sometimes-vague pattern of his presentation. On page 132 (chapter 26) Aquinas takes issue with those who believe god is "...nothing else than the formal being of everything" This is Aquinas portraying both the "literal" and the "mystical" of the four senses, saying that those who see God as a "formal being" are in "error."

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He breaks all beings down into "substantial" and "accidental" - and the divine is neither substantial nor accidental therefore, Aquinas reasons God is not a formal being. God, "Who is His own being," has a "cause" and therefore is not "per se necessary being," Aquinas writes. And God will not appear as an "individual thing" except when He is "apprehended in the mind" that way. In this section Aquinas goes into intricate detail outlining the "errors" made by those who presumed God was a formal being.

In his chapter 27 essay, "That God is not the Form of a Body," Aquinas asserts that since he has already proved God is not the "being of all," it will be easy to prove God can't have the form of a body. This essay is less esoteric, as Aquinas' essays go. But he is never satisfied explaining his thought one way - he is always re-defining, re-stating, and using previous assertions as "proof" he is right. But in Chapter 27, he states (paraphrased) that since there is only one divine being, and that is "God," it is therefore "impossible" for God to be anything other than what he is, a divine being. "...God is being itself. Therefore God is not the form of a body" (Aquinas 137).

On pages 186-191, Chapter 40 ("The Book of Blessed Dionysius Concerning the Divine Names") Aquinas delves into the mystical (anagogical) sense of Christianity. Aquinas poses the question as to how humans can know God, and as usual, answers his own question with more questions and numerous possible answers. He covers all his bases by saying that God is known through "knowledge" and through "ignorance." And he goes on, humans can only know God through "negation" and "transcendence." God can be known ("apprehended") by "intuition, reason, understanding, touch, sense, opinion, imagination, name, and so on..."

But on the other hand He cannot be "grasped" by "intuition" - nor can God be "uttered or named." So, what is Aquinas really saying? Are his thoughts put into words to confuse and puzzle readers, much as the concept of an all-powerful divine spirit puzzles believers as well as non-believers? "He is all things in all, and nothing in any, and is known in all, and is not known from any to any man." The link to knowing God, is through "...a union that transcends the mind," writes Aquinas on page 187. What does this mean? It means that Aquinas, in this passage, is using the philosophical genius of Dionysius to justify his contention that God can really only be known as One who is "above all" and even above "all that we can comprehend."

When Aquinas discusses "Moral Virtues" - and how they are distinguished from one another - he seems to have been preparing the way for the Reformation. On pages 583-585 of Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas he digs into the question of how many moral virtues there are. Is there only one? Are practical moral obligations different from obligations about passions, and which ones apply to passion? To the assertion that there is but one moral virtue (prudence), Aquinas responds: since "reason holds the place of commander and mover...so...it follows that moral virtues are of various species and not one only."

On page 590, the question of "Whether There Are Theological Virtues?" is approached. This is another moral issue. Aquinas presents a brief argument (in his "for the sake of argument" style) that there are no theological virtues because physics defines virtue as the "...disposition of a perfect thing to that which is best...according to nature." Hence, the first "objection" goes, since the divine is above nature, theological virtues are not "the virtues of man." But Aquinas rebuts: "On the contrary," since the precepts of law are about acts of virtue and the divine law contains "...precepts about the acts of faith, hope, and charity...Therefore faith, hope and charity are virtues directing us to God" (Aquinas 590). And moreover there are indeed theological virtues, "...and those are faith, hope, and charity."

Moving forward a few hundred years for the purposes of contemporary clarity, it is worthy to examine an editorial published by the National Catholic Reporter (Curran, 2003). The writer alludes to the writings of Thomas Aquinas and the way in which he approached law and morality - a topic germane to this paper. With reference to the Roman Catholic opposition to same-sex marriage, the writer, Father Charles E. Curran, Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University, explains that the Catholic Church has instructed its community for years that civil law must conform to moral law.

The contemporary Catholic view (found in the "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith") is that "...civil law cannot contradict right reason without losing its binding force on conscience." Aquinas' approach "...begins with God's law as mediated by the natural and civil law"; his basic presumption then is "natural law" while the Vatican II strategy is to "favor freedom." Meanwhile, the Thomistic view - which was, we can see now, indeed paving the way for the Reformation but seems lost within the Church theology - is that "...the purpose of civil law is the common good." And Curran describes the Catholic position: "The purpose of civil law is public order," a "narrower concept," Curran insists, than Aquinas' "common good" concept. So the Vatican's order - which use "common good" eight times - bumps up against Aquinas' view of moral law, but sets out on a narrow trajectory of its own in order to attack gay marriages.

Meanwhile, a deeper look into Aquinas' view of natural law is found in the book the System of Thomas Aquinas; on pages 110-111 author De Wulf points to Aquinas' simply-stated first command from God to man: Act according to reason "...to do good and void evil." Men are obligated to "...preserve their own life and to ward off its obstacles...to know the truth about God and to live in Society," De Wulf quotes Aquinas as saying. Within that natural law it is explained that "human nature is radically sound," De Wulf adds, and that even "the worst of criminals is capable of moral reformation" (further justification for this writer's view that Aquinas set the stage for the Reformation). The second principle from God's natural law to mankind, as De Wulf describes Aquinas' thinking, is that there are "circumstantial" principles which human reason must take into consideration prior to enunciating a moral law. Indeed, a moral law "governs only the majority of cases...and [hence] it is enough for a thing to e true in the greater number of cases," Aquinas writes as quoted by De Wulf.

Dennis Bradley of Georgetown University critiques the John Finnis book the Philosopher - and in the critique Bradley explains how (according to Finnis) Aquinas translates Aristotle's view of human happiness into Christian theology. Happiness is the "natural activity of theoretical contemplation...or investigation of God as God may be known from His created/natural or reveal/supernatural effects," according to Finnis' recounting of Aquinas. But that natural activity "does not constitute "ultimate beatitude" Finnis continues; indeed, this interpretation of Aquinas leads to the "unsettling conclusion" that in this world no "perfect" happiness is possible. Further, Aristotle claimed the soul survives death, but since it survives death "without memory or… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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