If people know anything about Thomas Aquinas, they know his “five ways” that give reasons for the existence of God. This section of Thomas’ writings is found in many introductory philosophy texts, and if a person has read anything of Thomas, they have read the five ways. These five ways are much criticized and attacked, although commonly mistaken. Richard Howe argues that at least half of the introductory texts that deal with Aquinas’ proofs misunderstand his use of motion (causality), holding it to be sequential causation, when Thomas was speaking of simultaneous causation. Nevertheless, many Christians who do not like classical apologetics use Aquinas as a whipping boy, deriding his work as flawed human reasoning. I maintain they are mistaken on several counts.
The five ways are found in Thomas’ most well-known work, Summa Theologica. The Summa is not meant to be an apologetic work, but is rather a theology text for seminary students, people who are already Christian. The five ways were not written for non-Christians to try to argue them into the faith; quite the contrary, the Summa was written to teach Christian leaders the detailed and well-reasoned theology that is the Christian faith. The goal was to teach Christian leaders to think, a goal that is most certainly still needed today.
In Aquinas’ small work Rationibus Fidei: Reasons for the Faith Against Muslim Objections, under the section titled “How to Argue With Unbelievers” he states “First of all I wish to warn you that in disputations with unbelievers about articles of the Faith, you should not try to prove the Faith by necessary reasons. This would belittle the sublimity of the Faith, whose truth exceeds not only human minds but also those of angels; we believe in them only because they are revealed by God.” From this, it would seem that Thomas does not believe in apologetics.
However, in both the Summa and in another of Thomas’ great multi-volume works, Summa Contra Gentiles, he spends quite a bit of time leading the reader through a logical process that provides reasonable support for the theological points he is making.
In the very first question of the Summa, Thomas states that we can learn some things through pure human reason, but other things must be revealed by God. This does not mean that the truths revealed by God are not reasonable. Thomas spends much of his efforts showing how God’s revealed truth is reasonable and true.
So is Aquinas the father of modern apologetics? Yes and no. It is not true that Thomas was primarily writing apologetic works — he was instead teaching theology and critical thinking skills to church leaders. However, I think it is a solid case to claim that one of Thomas Aquinas’ purposes was to create people who could defend the faith against objections.
One of the reasons why Thomas is misunderstood today is that people do not take the time to read him. His works span the pages of many dozens of volumes and assume the reader is well-versed in metaphysics. We would all benefit from turning off the noise around us and spending some long days with Thomas Aquinas. I’m reminded of the following quote:
“I couldn’t make any judgment on the Summa, except to say this: I read it for about twenty minutes every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during this process and say, ‘Turn off that light. It’s late,’ I with a lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, ‘On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,’ or some such thing.”