What is Thomism?

Thomism is the philosophical and theological approach attributed to Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274). Aquinas was a Dominican monk who was born in Italy and taught in Paris and Naples. Answering “what is Thomism?” is about like answering “what is theology?” for the two subjects are almost equally broad. But here I will give a brief summary.

The origins of western thought can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. Plato taught that the nature of things were determined by a separate form that existed somewhere in the universe. Therefore the chair you are sitting in is a mere copy based on a “real” chair that exists somewhere in pure immaterial form. Aristotle differed, and taught that the form of the chair exists in the chair, not separately. Plato was more influential, and eventually Aristotle’s teachings were lost and forgotten in western Europe.

St. Augustine was influenced by Plato. Augustine in turn greatly influenced much of Christian theology. Augustine picked up on the idea of separate forms and applied it to human body and soul, teaching that the “real” you existed in spirit, and the body was a material copy. Augustine therefore separated body and soul, and read this into his theology, which in turn influenced much of Christian theology.

Meanwhile, Aristotle was picked up by the Muslims, who introduced Aristotle to western Europe in the 1200’s. Aquinas was sharp enough to distinguish truth from error, and used the portions of Aristotle that aligned well with scripture, and rejected the rest. Unfortunately, Aquinas’ teachings were branded as having Muslim influence due to it’s Aristotelian tendencies. Upon Aquinas’ death, his teachings were branded as not according to the tradition of Augustine and rejected………temporarily.

Meanwhile a series of European philosophers brought in destructive teachings into western thought. Rene Descartes introduced the idea of questioning our senses; David Hume questioned whether we can know cause and effect; Hume also questioned whether it is logical to believe in miracles; Immanuel Kant taught that our minds determine the meaning to the sense data that enters our minds, and therefore we cannot know anything in the spiritual realm; existentialist philosophers published works that were difficult to derive meaning from; Soren Kierkegaard spent the last years of his life in outright attacks on the church, teaching that we should focus on individual needs and not on doctrinal traditions. Further, liberal theologians within the church began to question whether we can know truth, teaching that what was important was our personal spiritual experience and not what doctrines we believed. Thus the church in recent years has inherited a belief that we should not engage the world, should not think of hard things, that the doctrines of God are either unknowable or irrelevant, and the only important thing is the personal spiritual realm and social programs.  Secular philosophy, especially epistemology (the study of how we know things) is in disarray, and the church receded from intellectual activity. The problem inside the church has gotten so bad that some feel we shouldn’t think of hard questions, but merely check our brain at the door. To them, faith is a blind faith.

Enter Thomism. It never really left, since a minority of theologians over the centuries recognized the genius of Thomas Aquinas and kept his teachings alive. Thomism answers most of the modern problems of theology and philosophy while staying true to orthodox Christian teachings. Briefly, its major tenets are:

  • We have enough of God’s image that we can use our minds to know the world, and derive knowledge of the Creator from observing His creation.
  • Humans are a unity of body and spirit. Thus Aquinas avoids the mind-body dualism of Descartes and the fallacy of saying everything is material.
  • Analogy is a huge concept in Thomism. Being (existence) is understood in an analogous sense; things can have different modes of existence. Hence a thing can exist in reality in the world and also exist in my mind, and not be in conflict.
  • God’s attributes are also analogous. Wisdom, love, power, knowledge, anger, etc. are all understood by us in an analogous sense. Humans are loving, but in an analogous sense to how God loves. Thus we can indeed know God, but in a finite way, since God is infinite. God is the source of all these attributes in humans, only He has them without limitation, while we have them in a limited way.
  • Being (be-ing) cannot be explained by essence. Thus defining what a thing is does not explain why it exists or that it exists. Thus Thomas posits several proofs for God’s existence based on empirical knowledge of the world, agreeing with Romans 1 that the pagan can see the world and know that God exists.
  • By looking at a contingent material universe, Aquinas can logically prove the existence of a necessary, infinite Being, called God.
  • Aquinas’ philosophy strongly undergirds orthodox theology, including God’s classical attributes of eternity, infinity, simplicity, trinity, impassibility, the full divinity and humanity of Jesus, etc.

Thomas Aquinas’ works are often either ignored or misunderstood. This is due to a lack of understanding Aristotle’s metaphysics, a lack of reading Aquinas’ many volumes of work, or trying to read Aquinas through the lens of modern philosophical problems. In summary, philosophy and theology are in a mess today, due to a lack of philosophical and theological underpinnings. Thomas Aquinas is the best answer.

Since this post is already too long, we will save the next question for later, namely: Why can’t we just ignore all philosophy and just study the bible?


About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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One Response to What is Thomism?

  1. Paul Boire says:

    Excellent summary. Thanks. I’m inclined to say that if you don’t get a little Aquinas in your mind one is likely to spend one’s life stumbling around with no confident understanding of our very existence and life itself. An intellectual apprehehension of “what’s it all about”.. is the whole point.
    Our ends and purpose as knowable in natural law. Thank God for Aquinas and the sanity he brings.

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