Birthed in the High Middle Ages, the university was in its beginning when Thomas Aquinas was a major Christian scholar. He shaped and was shaped by this important institution. “The term universtas” writes Douglas Shantz, “first appeared in a papal document in AD 1208-1209. It referred to the total body of teachers and students, a kind of academic union or guild. It also connoted the totality of the services in four faculties: arts (Philosophy), law, medicine, and theology.”[i]
One of St. Thomas’s most popular works is the Summa Theologica. A Summa is a summary of the major points of a specific topic. It follows the basic procedure of a disputation, which was similar to a modern debate. Such disputations were popular in the Middle Ages, when students or professors would hold a public debate. They would present a thesis to the audience, who would then present criticisms against the thesis. The scholar would respond to these criticisms and bring all points together in a synthesis. It is this procedure that is followed in the Summa Theologica. Aquinas begins by asking a question. For example, he asks whether revelation was necessary for individuals to obtain salvation. He then presents arguments that conclude it was not. After this, he presents his own answer and responds to each criticism. Some people find this format nerve-racking; I find it exhilarating. According to the late Mortimer Adler, all of the 102 great ideas that are studied in the Great Books program are included in the Summa Theologica. Some of these ideas are angel, animal, beauty, being, God, government and many others. Another benefit in reading this great work is that one is introduced to most of the great thinkers of the Ancient and Medieval world.
“The Summa Theologica,” observes Shantz, “illustrates Thomas’s understanding of the teaching task. He devoted his best energies not to a work of scholarship for fellow professors but to a textbook for beginners…. “[ii] Thomas, like Plato, thought learning and teaching begin with “amazement” and “questioning.” St. Thomas tried to help the learner “recognize the mirandum, the wonderment, the novelty of the subject under discussion.” By doing this the teacher “puts the learner on the road to genuine questioning… [that] inspires all true learning.”[iii]
Another positive trait of Thomas Aquinas is that he engaged secular learning. A major part of the writings of St. Thomas is commentaries on the works of Aristotle. This is extraordinary because that was not part of his responsibility as a theology professor. That was a major role for the Master of Arts not theology. Be that as it may, Thomas Aquinas became one of the leading interpreters of Aristotelian thought.[iv]
The reading and teaching of the works of Aristotle was actually controversial in the thirteenth century. Before the thirteenth century, the majority of Aristotle’s works were not known in Christian Europe, only in the Muslim world. In the 12th and 13th centuries, according to Arthur Holmes, “Latin translations from Greek and Arabic appeared, only to be greeted with grave suspicion because they seemed to contradict Christian theology.”[v] There were those who said that the works of Aristotle should be condemned. For example, Aquinas’s friend, Bonaventure, a Franciscan “preached sermons on the dangers to the faith found in Aristotle’s philosophy … and at the University of Paris the teaching of Aristotle’s metaphysics and natural philosophy was for a while officially banned.”[vi] There were others who said everything Aristotle taught should be accepted even if it conflicted with Christian revelation. They appeared to teach the idea of double truth. This basically means that ideas in two different disciplines could both be true even if they contradicted each other. Aquinas disagreed with both of these groups. He did not think truth contradicted itself. He “carefully studied Aristotle for himself and found much that was not only compatible with Christian thought but helpful to it as well.”[vii]
We can also learn something about the vocation of Christian learning from St. Thomas. He believed teaching was his “first vocation” : “I feel that I owe it to God to make this the foremost duty of my life: that all my thought and speech proclaim him.”[viii] We can also say of Thomas that “he was one of those who teach as they grow and grow as they teach.”[ix] For Aquinas, “teaching involved two relationships and activities: his relationship to the truth in silently listening to reality; and his relationship with his pupils in clarifying, presenting and communicating that truth.”[x]
Lastly, Thomas Aquinas actively engaged other religious traditions. For example, he studied the writings of the major Muslim and Jewish philosophers for whom he had great respect. He learned from them, but he also showed where they strayed philosophically. We may wonder at Aquinas’s welcoming assistance from Jewish and Muslim thinkers, “especially when we,” observes David Burrell, “reflect on the character of his times: the popular response to the call to arms of the crusades as well as a nearly universal impression on the part of Christians that the new covenant had effectively eclipsed the old. Aquinas may have shared these sentiments … yet his overriding concern in reaching out to other thinkers was always to learn from them in his search for truth.” [xi]
[i] Douglas H. Shantz, “The Christian University in Contemporary Culture: the Distinctive and the Challenge.” In Christian Worldview and the Academic Disciplines : Crossing the Academy, eds. Deane E.D. Downey and Stanley E. Porter (Eugene, OR.: Pickwick, 2009), 3-4.
[iv] Jan A. Aertsen, “Aquinas’s Philosophy in its Historical Setting.” In The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, eds. Norman Kretzmann and Eleonore Stump (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 21.
[v] Arthur F. Holmes, Building the Christian Academy, 50-51.
[vii] Ibid., 50.
[viii] Douglas H. Shantz, “The Christian University,” 4-5.
[xi] David B. Burrell, “A Mingling of Minds: Why was One of Christianity’s Best Thinkers so Ready to Learn from a Muslim and a Jew”? Christian History 21 No 1 (F 2002): 37.