A uniquely relevant influence
A wide range of scholars find Aquinas an essential dialogue partner.
As a philosopher, he drew on many strands of thought: Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoic, Jewish, Christian and Muslim.
As a theologian, he insisted on the importance of the careful study of Scripture, and drew on the thought of both Eastern and Western Fathers of the Church.
He inspires us to draw on the same sources, to value truth wherever it is found, and to consider any question carefully, weighing up evidence for and against any answer. So he promotes clear and reasoned dialogue in a world where many voices compete and sometimes conflict.
Because Aquinas’ thought is pre-modern, it can be refreshing in a post-modern and multi-faith world. His accounts of matter and causation, of animal and human psychology, of virtue and law, of freedom and grace, help us wrestle with contemporary discoveries such as quantum mechanics, animal psychology, neurophysiology, and evolution, and with questions such as where human uniqueness lies, the role of the state vis-à-vis the individual conscience, and whether moral goodness and beauty are a matter of virtue or duty. Aquinas’ teaching is an important voice in contemporary theological debates and developments concerning God’s transcendence and presence, Christ’s humanity, the Atonement, and our need for the personal guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Why Pay Attention to Aquinas?
Aquinas has had an immense influence on philosophy and theology. Although his influence on Catholic theology has been uniquely strong, partly reinforcing and partly modifying Augustine’s influence, his writings have been, and are, valued by Protestants as well as Catholics, by metaphysicians, ethicists and legal theorists as well as theologians. Many scholars feel obliged to take account of him even while neglecting most other mediaeval thinkers; they find him at least an essential dialogue partner, and at best a fruitful stimulus to reflection.
For philosophers, Aquinas can represent a synthesis of many strands of thought: Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoic, Jewish, Christian and Muslim. As written before 14th-Century ‘voluntarism’ and ‘Cartesian mechanism’, Aquinas’ Aristotelian accounts of form and matter and of causation can be refreshing to those who wrestle with the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics; his accounts of animal psychology and of human free choice seem open to modern discoveries in psychology and provoke illuminating questions concerning these discoveries. His eudaimonistic virtue ethics, which includes an intriguing account of the nature and value of law, offers a perspective on moral goodness and beauty which can be found more attractive than deontological, legalistic and casuistic approaches, more robust and ‘rooted’ than positivist, utilitarian and emotivist positions.
For theologians and philosophers of religion, Aquinas has fruitful and provocative things to say about God’s transcendence and presence; how we can speak truly about God; the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Redemption; Scripture and Sacraments; and the life of grace. Some once-fashionable opinions about Aquinas and his limitations have been challenged in recent years, and strands of his teaching that have been rather neglected have begun to receive attention, such as his emphasis on our need for the Gifts and personal guidance of the Holy Spirit.
On-going research into Mediaeval science, politics, philosophy and theology is helping us locate Aquinas and the developments in his thought more accurately in his environment, but even an initial familiarity with his teaching can yield dividends for students in several areas, and for scholars working at the interface between Christianity on the one hand, and Judaism or Islam on the other, or between faith and a whole range of modern sciences.
It is no surprise that there are many ‘Thomistic’ and ‘Aquinas Institutes’ in the world, and the Aquinas Institute in Oxford is pleased to play its part alongside – and in collaboration with – them in promoting the study, discussion, use and dissemination of Aquinas’ ideas.