Thomas Aquinas and the Knowledge of God
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (v. 1).- Psalm 19
Moving ahead to the thirteenth century, we will now consider the life and contributions of Thomas Aquinas as we continue our series of studies that look at some of the significant figures God raised up for the good of His church. Without a doubt, Thomas ranks among the towering intellects of church history. His systematization of Christian doctrine continues to serve as an example for theologians, and he is particularly noted for his writings on the knowledge of God that comes to us through divine revelation.
Thomas (1225–74) joined the Dominican order when he was nineteen. The Dominicans were an order of preachers, so he devoted much of his time as a monk to preaching and teaching the Word of God. Initially, Thomas was the subject of ridicule from his peers. They referred to him as a “dumb ox” because of his appearance and because he was soft spoken. It is said that Thomas’ mentor, Albert the Great, corrected these students, proclaiming that the bellowing of this dumb ox would change the world.
During the thirteenth century, the church faced a crisis of epistemology, the science of how we know what we know. At the time, Islam was a leading intellectual force in the Arab world and in parts of Europe. Christian thinkers in Europe had to deal with Islamic philosophers who taught the “Double Truth Theory of Knowledge,” which was a way that Islamic thinkers tried to reconcile the teachings of the ancient Greek philosophers with the teachings of the Qur’an, which Islam receives as divine revelation. The Double Truth Theory holds that something can be true according to divine revelation but false according to the natural knowledge we attain via philosophy and vice versa.
Thomas countered this theory by asserting that even natural knowledge, when it attains truth, is relying on divine revelation—the revelation that God gives in nature (see Ps. 19:1). Some things are known by natural revelation, such as chemistry and physics. Special revelation is the source of the knowledge of the mysteries of the faith, such as the doctrine of the Trinity. Finally, truths such as the existence of God are revealed in both Scripture and nature. Ultimately, Thomas said, none of these sources of truth contradict each other, even if we cannot always figure out how the truth of nature and Scripture fit together. All truth, Thomas said, is God’s truth.
If we are studying Scripture and the natural world and we perceive a contradiction, then we have failed somewhere in our study. Rightly understood, Scripture and science will never conflict, but it is possible for us to make errors in our interpretation of Scripture and the natural world. Thus, we must study widely and be willing to be corrected, knowing that all truth is God’s truth and is fully coherent.
Passages for Further Study