Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


When I discussed the error of mysticism in connection with the Medieval mystics, I pointed to the fact that God created man in body and soul, thus one living, rational-moral creature. Man has a mind and a will. Part of man’s activity as a willing creature is his emotional life. That which can satisfy man is ultimately that which feeds his entire soul-life in intellect, will, and emotions.

The Word of God in all its full glory is such a revelation of God that it satisfies the whole man when it is believed by faith. It is intellectually satisfying because its truths are the great truths of God Himself as He reveals Himself in Christ. There is enough in Scripture to keep one occupied in theology all his life long. And, when he reaches the end of his life, there are still those great depths of scriptural truth which need to be plumbed but for which there is no time in the fleeting span of a man’s life. Indeed, the depths of Scripture are greater than can be investigated and appropriated in the entire history of the church, with all its great and gifted theologians.

But the Scriptures are also emotionally satisfying, if I may put it that way. In Scripture’s truth and in the appropriation of it one finds the great joy of forgiveness of sins—after the deep sorrow of repentance and confession. One finds peace and comfort in grief. One finds courage in the face of insuperable odds as the Christian warrior does battle with the enemies of God and of his own soul. The Scriptures contain the whole spectrum of Christian emotion, from the heart-rending words of John, “Jesus wept,” through the soaring prophecies of Isaiah, to the almost black despair ofPsalm 77 and the agony of Job in his misery, to the triumphant shout of victory in Romans 8:31-39.

The pendulum in the church throughout the ages has tended to swing from one extreme to the other. When religion became almost entirely intellectual, the emotional aspect of it was ignored or denigrated, and rationalism was the result. When the truth of Scripture was no longer of interest, and how and what one felt became the big thing, the emotions were given prominence and mysticism resulted. And, if one observes the currents in the church through the ages, one discovers that mysticism was a reaction to rationalism, for man is more than a brain; and rationalism was a reaction to mysticism, because man is also more than a collection of feelings.

In our last articles we were busy with mysticism. In this article we shall pay attention to rationalism. We shall use as our pattern for this error the great theologian Thomas Aquinas.

The choice of Thomas Aquinas is somewhat arbitrary. The medieval times produced others more rationalistic than he. Rationalism was a pattern of thought among many as early as the seventh century. But Thomas Aquinas cast a longer shadow than any other medieval theologian, and the rationalism of the Middle Ages came to fullest expression in him.

Thomas Aquinas was not a cold and emotionless rationalist. Indeed, if anyone came close to combining in his theology both rationalism and mysticism it was this great figure. That this is true is evident from the fact, on the one hand, that he wrote the greatest systematic theology of the entire medieval period, his Summa Theologiae; and, on the other hand, that he was among the rare theologians who spoke of the church as the mystical body of Christ: the mystery, the mystical relation between Christ and His church.

Insofar as Aquinas held both rationalism and mysticism in equilibrium in his thinking, he represented these two streams which were always present in the Roman Catholic Church. Mystics of the most subjective sort stood side by side with theologians whose teachings were more philosophy than theology. It was one of the oddities of the period and one of the strange phenomena of medieval Roman Catholicism.

But we ought to get on with Thomas.

The Life of Thomas Aquinas

I doubt very much whether there was a more influential theologian in the entire medieval period than Thomas Aquinas. So great was his influence that he not only dominated in years following his death, but he also shaped the creedal statements of Roman Catholicism found in the Decrees of the Council of Trent, when Rome drew up her response to the Reformation. That influence of Thomas continues to the present. The shape and form of Romish theology is that which Thomas Aquinas gave it.

He is also much revered in both Romish and Protestant circles. Hundreds of books have been written about him, and commentaries to fill whole shelves have been produced as efforts were made to probe his magnum opus, his Summa. Biographies also abound, although Thomas led about the most uneventful life that anyone could possibly lead. Many of the biographies are defenses of his sainthood, including the worshipful biography of G. K. Chesterton, with the title, “The Dumb Ox.”

Chesterton got this title from the words of Albertus Magnus, Thomas’ teacher. Thomas was big, clumsy, and very quiet. The students referred to him as a dumb ox. When Albertus Magnus heard this, he roared: “You call him a Dumb Ox; I tell you that the Dumb Ox will bellow so loud that his bellowing will fill the world.”

Thomas was born in either 1224 or 1226 to a family belonging to the nobility. He was born in the Italian town of Aquino (hence his name) in the kingdom of Naples.

His parents were interested in getting for him the best possible education, and so they sent him, at the tender age of 5, to the monastery of Monte Cassino, just a bit southeast of Rome and one of the first monasteries (if not the first) in Europe. It was a fatal decision of Thomas’ parents, one they were to regret.

Thomas’ dedication to the Romish church grew during these years when his young mind could easily be influenced by his teachers. The end of it was that in 1241, without the consent and knowledge of his parents, he joined the Dominican Order.

A word about the Dominican Order will, perhaps, help put Thomas in some perspective. Two new mendicant orders were established in the latter part of the twelfth century. The word “mendicant”means “poor” or “begging.” They were established as protests against and options to the other existing corrupt and wealthy monastic movements. The Franciscans were founded by Francis of Assisi and were noted for their care of the poor, the erection of hospitals, orphanages, and leper colonies and other like institutions. The Dominicans, founded by Dominic, were noted for their emphasis on education and their total devotion to the welfare of the Romish church. The Dominicans soon controlled some of the most prestigious universities, but were also the leading figures in the Inquisition, one of the cruelest and most awful institutions to promote orthodoxy which this world has ever seen. But Thomas lived before those awful days.

Thomas’ parents were distressed and angry at his decision, and they were determined that their son would not remain a Dominican. Unwilling to admit that they had really brought this on themselves when they sent their five-year old boy away from home to be educated by the church, they now blamed the church for what they considered to be a major catastrophe.

Thomas’ mother went in search of him. When she found him she, with the help of her servants, seized him on a public road and locked him away in a castle in Rocca-sicca. While Thomas was confined in this closely guarded room in the castle, his parents did everything in their power to dissuade him from the course he had chosen. They used pleas, tears, angry outbursts, threats, and promises of great things to try to change his mind. Everything failed. Thomas was resolute and determined to remain a Dominican.

During the two years of his confinement he spent his time in warding off the efforts of his parents to convince him to follow a different path, and in studying the Scriptures, dogmatics, and Aristotle. From a certain point of view, these two years may have been the most influential in his life.

Thomas finally brought his captivity to an end by escaping from the castle through a window and fleeing to Naples. This was about the only exciting event that took place in his entire life.

In 1244, at the age of twenty, he went to Cologne in Germany to study under Albertus Magnus, or Albert the Great, one of the most outstanding medieval theologians prior to Thomas. When Albertus went to Paris, Thomas followed, for he was devoted to his teacher. In Paris he completed his studies.

In 1248 Thomas began his teaching career. He started in Cologne, where he taught philosophy and Holy Scripture. He 1252 he taught in Paris. In 1255, now 31 years old, he received his doctor of philosophy degree. From Paris he returned to Italy, where he taught at one time or another in almost every university in the country, until he settled finally in Naples, where he died on March 7, 1274, at the age of 50.

Thomas’ Character

In many respects Thomas was an unusual man. He was unusual, in the first place, because he was totally indifferent to money, wealth, prestige, honors, and fame. He was offered many dignities, many awards, many positions of honor. To all these he turned a deaf ear. The pope even offered him the archbishopric of Naples, one of the most prestigious posts in all Europe. But this too he declined. Such a man was not only a rarity in Medieval Europe, but remains a rarity today. And in this respect at least he reminds one of Calvin.

Perhaps his indifference to the things of the world is to be explained by the fact that he was totally absorbed in his studies, teaching, and writing. In this area Thomas was brilliant. It was said of him that he could dictate on different subjects to different secretaries at the same time. He was a master not only of all the church fathers who preceded him, but he also absorbed the culture and philosophy of the Greeks and Romans. He was particularly a student of Aristotle, the last of the great Greek philosophers.

His teaching was so learned, so powerful, and so original that he drew students literally from every part of Europe. Yet, he had that great gift of preaching which enables the uneducated and little children to understand what he was saying.

His works fill a large shelf, but none is so influential as his Summa Theologiae, which is still considered today an authority on Roman Catholic teaching, and which has been described as “one of the grandest attempts at a complete science of theology ever planned by a human intellect.”

His complete absorption in his work is legendary. The story is told that Thomas was invited to dine with King Louis IX of France, who was accustomed to ask Thomas’ advice on affairs of state. Thomas was at the time occupied with a somewhat difficult theological problem. In his absent-mindedness he dabbled with his food and was unresponsive to what was going on around him. Suddenly, to everyone’s consternation, he hit the table a mighty blow and shouted: “Now at last I found it!” His prior and superior reminded him immediately that such actions were a disgrace to his order for he was dining at the king’s table. But Louis must have had some inkling of his genius, for he immediately ordered a scribe to be fetched so that Thomas could set down his thoughts.

The pope summoned him to Rome when he was near 50 years old. He never made it to the Vatican, but died enroute.