Church History, Part 2: St. Thomas Aquinas

February 16, 2003



Church History, Part 2: St. Thomas Aquinas (2/16/03)

University Congregational Church — Wichita, Kansas

Rev. Gary Cox

Last week we began a four-part series on some of the great theologians from church history. I promised you last week, and I reiterate now, that we will spend more time on the people themselves, and the history surrounding them, than we will on the nuts and bolts of their various theologies, which would make for some pretty dry sermons.

Last week we raced through the first 4-1/2 centuries of Christian history—from the time of Christ, to the Visigoth’s sacking of Rome in the year 410, the death of Augustine in 430, and the ultimate fall of Rome in 476. That sermon was centered on St. Augustine, and the reasons for the great influence he had upon church history.

Let’s quickly reset history at this point. For centuries, Rome was the world’s greatest power. Roman legions had been able to keep the Germanic peoples behind the borders of the Roman Empire, at the Rhine and Danube rivers. In the early part of the fifth century the floodgates opened, and what history would call “the barbaric hoards” swept across the old Roman Empire in waves, establishing their own kingdoms in cities throughout the old empire.

Now, you’ll remember that Christianity, under the Emperor Constantine, had become the official religion of Rome. That imperial church would maintain power for another thousand years in the east—in the Byzantine Empire, centered around Constantinople. But for Western Europe, the political and religious unity provided by the Roman Empire had vanished.

Throughout history, Christianity has shown a unique ability to fit into the container in which it is placed. It has always been able to adapt to whatever culture attempted to take it over. It remains the world’s religion with the most adherents because it has fit into the culture of the modern western world, as well as being the leading religion in some of the poorest parts of the developing world. The reasons a Wall Street businessman in New York and a hungry peasant in Honduras give for being Christians may differ, as would the way they practice their faith; but the fact remains they adhere to the same religion. So it should not be surprising that the pagan hoards who overran the Roman Empire soon accepted the Christian faith.

Three traditions came together over the next 1000 years, forming modern civilization. Those three are: the culture of ancient Greece and Rome; the traditions of the Germanic tribes; and Christianity. The process of the intermingling of those three traditions is called the Middle Ages, and lasted from around the year 500 to around the year 1500.

This time period, especially it’s first half—from 500 to 1000–is also called the Dark Ages. During those years the western world fell into a sort of darkness. There was constant warfare between small tribal nations. There were no more great centers of learning. And the academic fields of philosophy, science and mathematics were almost entirely ignored.

But Christianity remained strong, and soon, whoever held the position as the Bishop of Rome was the most powerful man in the world, and was called the Pope. Consider the irony in all of this. As we saw last week, for the first several centuries of the church, Christians were often persecuted and killed simply because they were Christians. But in the fourth century, Christianity became the primary religion of the whole Roman Empire. Then Rome was overrun by the Germanic hoards. No one would have envisioned that a few centuries later, in the year 800, the old empire would be revived under the ultimate control of the church, as Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne the Emperor of what history calls The Holy Roman Empire.
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While the split between the Eastern church and the Western church had effectively been accomplished long before, it was in the year 1054 that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches officially became two separate entities. The reasons for the split are many. They disagreed on a number of theological and church polity issues. But the one thing they were able to agree on, in the first centuries of the second millennium, was that the Muslim faith, which had taken over the Holy Land, should be conquered. In this short series we have no time to examine that era, except to way that the ensuing Crusades are not a proud part of Christian history.

This was not a time of great theological debate. Augustine, back in the fifth century, had indicated that philosophy and theology were not opposed to one another. It was okay to think about the Christian faith, although he conceded that there were times when only faith could provide the answers to life, and faith ultimately took precedence over philosophy. Logic and reason, claimed Augustine, could take a person only so far, and then faith had to take over.

For a variety of reasons, the church of the Middle Ages took this notion to the extreme. The Bible was in Latin, and only trained clergy were permitted to read it. The masses were ignorant, and papal authorities found it in the church’s best interest to keep them that way. Finally, beginning in the 11th Century, the clergy at least started thinking again. Such great thinkers as St. Francis and St. Anselm wrote tracts and letters that are highly valued to this day.

Soon, a new school arose in Christianity—scholasticism. Scholasticism had the audacity to start questioning everything. While the masses were kept ignorant, highly educated clergy started thinking about, and talking about, all those contradictions in the Bible. And then, something extremely important happened. Through interaction with the Islamic world, the church rediscovered Geek philosophy. The Muslims had kept the philosophy, science and mathematics of the ancient Greeks alive through the Dark Ages. Plato and Aristotle, important at the time of Augustine, had been eradicated from the Christian world for almost 800 years. After all, thinking and education could only get in the way of people’s faith, and their devotion to the church. Now, universities were springing up. By the 13th Century, even non-clergy people were seeking an education.

The world was ready for some person with an exceptionally brilliant mind to pour over all that Greek philosophy—all that reason, logic, science and metaphysics—and see if it fit together with Christianity. It was time to welcome the human mind back into the church. And the man most responsible for that had one of the most brilliant minds in human history. His name was Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas was the son of a respected Count, and was born in 1225, in modern–day Italy. His uncle was the abbot of a monastery, and at the age of five Thomas was delivered to the monastery to receive his education. Now, his parents had big plans for him, and while they knew he would get a great education at the monastery, the last thing they wanted was for him to devote his life to the Christian faith. When he announced to them at the age of 19 that he intended to do just that, his parents and brothers seized him, and literally held him a captive in their home for over a year. He eventually made his escape, studying over the next several years in Paris and Cologne.

Historians agree there were three traits that defined Thomas Aquinas. He was highly intelligent; he was physically big; and he was quiet. The fact that he was big and quiet led many to overlook his intelligence, and he became known at the universities he attended as “the dumb ox.”

His teachers soon noticed the brilliant mind that was hidden in this very large and quiet man. In his mid-twenties he turned down the opportunity to become the abbot of the monastery where he had spent his childhood. Years of teaching followed in Paris, Spain, and throughout Italy. He became a highly regarded member of the Papal court in Rome, and at one point refused to become the archbishop of Naples, despite the urgings of the pope.

Thomas had a single-minded interest throughout his life: to be a teaching, writing scholar. Unlike St. Augustine, who as we saw last week did not come to the faith before tasting heartily of the less spiritual and more seductive joys of life, Thomas Aquinas was deeply religious. He seldom spoke outside the classroom. And he wrote. He wrote prodigious volumes of works on the Bible, theology, and philosophy. He studied not only Greek philosophy, but even other religions, and became an expert on the Muslim faith.

So what is it, exactly, that Thomas Aquinas said and did that made him so memorable? Well, consider the little one sentence saying of this church, which is found on our letterhead: University Congregational Church—where head and heart are equal partners in faith. That falls right in line with the thinking of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas was the person who at last made it okay, once and for all, to seriously think about religion.

Thomas Aquinas took the thinking of Aristotle and pushed it to its deepest level. He boldly claimed that there was nothing in Aristotle’s thinking that ran contrary to Christian thought. To bring this conversation out of the Middle Ages and into the modern world, many of us in the church today are facing the same problems faced by Thomas Aquinas. The world presents us with information, and it seems to run contrary to some of the traditions of our faith. For example, we find dinosaur bones and discover they are tens of millions of years old. Yet when we trace back through the Bible, we discover the biblical story of the world only goes back about 6000 years. What do we do? Then, as now, some say you have to get on one side or the other. Either you believe in science, and logic, and reason; or you believe in your faith. But you can’t do both.

Thomas Aquinas said you could believe in philosophy and logic and reason, studying the natural world for all its truths; and still believe in the tenets of the Christian faith. Both faith and reason are gifts from God. Both are ways God has given us of understanding, and coping with, the world around us.

Nowhere today do we see this as clearly as with the theory of evolution. Just as many at the time of Thomas Aquinas said you had to close you eyes to the realities of the world and put your faith in the unseen God, there are those today who will stand the truth on its head before they will admit that species evolve. For them, either God snapped his fingers and humankind instantly popped into being, or their entire faith is down the drain. For me, and I imagine Thomas Aquinas would agree if he had the facts we have today, God did just snap his fingers and humankind appeared. It’s just that the process of God snapping his fingers took 14 billion years, and we popped into being through an evolutionary process.

Thomas Aquinas, much like Augustine, did say there were some truths that could be known only through revelation. For example, the idea that Jesus Christ was the incarnation of God could not be rationally proven. It is a truth that God either does or does not allow you to understand. But most truths—even the existence of God—can be known both through revelation and through reason.

He developed his “five proofs” for the existence of God, which are still argued in seminaries today. The most basic proof he offered, following Aristotle, was that the universe is clearly based on cause and effect. Everything we see, everything that happens, has a cause. And if you trace back through time, you would have to arrive at the first cause, itself uncaused, which would be God.

Well, let’s not bog down on that. Perhaps the most important legacy of Thomas Aquinas is the fact that he made the Christian faith palatable to a world that was awakening from its long slumber through the Dark Ages. To this day, Thomas Aquinas is considered one of the greatest thinkers in the history of the church, and Catholic theology is based primarily on his writings. His great work—Summa Theologica—remains unsurpassed for its exhaustive look at all the issues surrounding the Christian faith.

I think that’s all we need to say about Thomas Aquinas. He represents the peak of the church of the Middle Ages. After him, the church tended to prove the old axiom (AK-see-um) that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The priests and cardinals of the church became the power elite. The parish priest was the most powerful person in a community. The reason for this went far beyond politics. The masses were kept in ignorance, and they became more and more superstitious.

The idea of an unspeakable hell, where demons torture souls through eternity—this is not a biblical idea. The Old Testament hardly deals with any notion of the afterlife. And in those rare passages in the New Testament where Jesus talks about the sheep and the goats, it seems the evil of this world are sent off to destruction—they are done away with once and for all, and are not endlessly tortured. Thanks to the fact the Bible was only allowed to be copied in Latin, there was little chance of non-clergy people reading the book for themselves. It was the priests who told the masses what the Bible said. The penalty for translating the Bible into any language in which it could actually be read was death.

It was in the Middle Ages that the notion of eternal torment became popular. And this worked very much to the church’s advantage, and led to the greatest corruption of all—the sale of indulgences.

Here’s the overview of how indulgences worked. If you committed a sin, and everybody commits sins, you are bound for hell and eternal torment when you die. However, you can buy your way out of that horrid fate. You can confess your sins, pay an indulgence—a fee—to the local priest, and your sin is forgiven by God.

Soon, the Roman Church realized it had a real money-maker on its hands. Forget starting a little business. If you wanted to make the big bucks, the best bet was to become a priest. And so, the church set up its parishes almost like franchises. A man of some means could purchase the rights to a parish, and become its priest. He would receive indulgences from the townspeople, and pass along a percentage to the church in Rome.

Theological training was sometimes not required. And some priests were able to purchase the rights to more than one parish. Soon, the situation got entirely out of hand. There were priest who would allow a person to pay up front for sins of the future. In other words, if you confessed to your priest that you were going out drinking and chasing women tomorrow night, he could advise you of the cost of such a sin, and you could pay a day ahead. That way, I suppose, if you fell off your horse and broke you neck after an evening of debauchery, you were sure to wake up in heaven.

And the biggest money-maker of all was the sale of indulgences for departed relatives. The idea of purgatory—again, a notion not found in the Bible—made a strong appearance during this period. People were told that the souls of their departed loved ones were in purgatory, hanging on a thread between heaven and hell. Enough cash to the local priest, however, and you were assured that your late Aunt Gertie’s soul would instantly spring out of purgatory and into the glory of heaven.

Now, as we prepare for next week’s sermon, I want to remind everybody of something. We are not Catholic bashing here. That history of the church—everything we’ve talked about over the past two weeks—is our history. We trace our roots through each and every person we’ve discussed, from the noblest theologians to the most corrupt of the medieval popes.

There were two reform movements that occurred as a result of the corruption of the late Middle Ages. One led to reforms within the Roman Catholic Church, and the other led to the formation of a new branch of Christianity—Protestantism. It is important to realize that reforms occurred in both instances.

For this series, we will continue next week along the Protestant path. That path was forged when, in 1517, a devout but troubled priest created a list of 95 complaints against the church, and posted them on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. For his action, Martin Luther received both a lasting legacy in church history, and a death sentence.

Between then and now, we should all give some thought to his greatest insight. He insisted that creation isn’t multi-layered, with God on top, and Jesus below God, and the pope below Jesus, and cardinals below the pope, and bishops below cardinals, and priests below bishops, and men beneath priests, and women beneath men.

He said there are only two layers: God, and everything else. We all stand in the same relationship to God, in a wonderful priesthood of all Christians. And the work of a village merchant can be every bit as holy as the work of a parish priest. See you next week.