August 12, 2014

Anniversary Week: 1245

Stephen Nichols
Anniversary Week: 1245


For our next top five moment in church history, we're going to move ahead a little bit, to the year 1245.

G.K. Chesterton wrote many books—from books on church history to mystery novels to detective stories (like his Father Brown stories). Among those books, he wrote one called The Dumb Ox. Sounds like a book of insults, right? Well, it's not. It's actually a biography of the figure who is the subject of our second top-five moment. That figure is Thomas Aquinas. G.K. Chesterton was not alive in the thirteenth century, of course. He's a twentieth-century figure. But Thomas Aquinas was born in 1225.

If you follow the western coastline of Italy, then stop around the middle, and then go inland just a bit, you will come to Aquino. There is the castle of the Count of Aquino, and it's in that castle in 1225 that Thomas of Aquino was born; or as we know him, Thomas Aquinas. When he was young, Thomas announced to his family that he wanted to become a monk. They did not receive this announcement well. In fact, "shock and horror" might be a better way to describe their reaction. They had him kidnapped, and they imprisoned him in the family castle. However, the church pressured the family, and eventually they relented. They released him.

Then, in 1245, Thomas arrived in Paris. He would leave his mark on church history from this point forward. In fact, I think that Thomas has few peers in all of church history. When he was at Paris, Thomas came under the influence of Albertus Magnus, or Albert the Great. Albert introduced Thomas to the great Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle's works gave Thomas a whole new way of thinking, and it gave him a whole new way to approach theology.

One of Thomas' key works is the Summa Theologica. He started this work in 1265, twenty years after arriving in Paris, which was twenty years after he was born (Thomas' life seems to been lived in twenty-year increments). The Summa is a book that is all about exploring every single question you could possibly ask in regard to theology.

In the Summa, Thomas Aquinas gives us a wonderful definition of theology. He says, "Theology is taught by God." The Latin is Theologia Deum docet. Then he says, "Theology teaches God" (a Deo docetur). And then, "It leads to God" (ad Deum ducit). So, theology is taught by God, teaches God, and leads to God. That reminds us first and foremost that theology is not a bottom-up endeavor—it's a top-down endeavor. It is taught by God. Revelation is at its center. That reminds us, what is the subject of theology? It teaches about God. God is the subject. God's will, God's decrees, and God's work in this world—those things are the subjects of theology. And what is the end of theology? Is it the amassing of information—the amassing of data? No, Aquinas reminds us that it ultimately leads us to God. And that is what Aquinas sets out to do in his Summa, this monumental work from the Middle Ages in the thirteenth century.

There is another line from Thomas that I'd like to leave you with. It's a great line. He says, "A lack of mirth is sinful, because someone without a sense of humor is burdensome; both by the failure to offer the pleasure of playful speech to others, and because their dourness keeps them from responding to the humor of others." You've got to love a theologian who can write a massive multivolume systematic theology and yet include the pleasure of playful speech within its pages.