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Aquinas on Humble Faith Surpassing Philosophy

Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) is well known as a medieval theologian with expertise in philosophy. His day job, however, was as a lecturer on Scripture and he held the title ‘Teacher of the sacred page’. The enormous significance that Thomas places on Scripture comes out throughout his writings, but I have especially valued something he says in a series of Lent addresses on the Apostle’s Creed. 

In the first lecture, on the clause ‘We believe in one God’, we find a fascinating observation. Thomas never disparaged knowledge that can be gained through philosophy. Here, though, he emphasises how far the faith of each believer surpasses all the best philosophy without Christ. As one writer observes, Thomas affirms that

[e]ven the humblest believer in Christ knows more about God and how to lead a good life than the most profound philosopher was able to know without faith in Christ.' [1]

That is a wonderful reflection and worth pondering a bit more...

Throughout patristic, medieval, and Protestant theology there has been a recognition of how much can be learned from good philosophical thought. In fact, early Protestants wrote dozens of commentaries on Aristotle’s most famous treatise on ethics. However, valuing philosophical insight also involved recognising its errors or limitations from the point of view of scriptural wisdom. 

When Thomas observes that each believer in Christ knows more about God and how to live well than any of the philosophers before Christ, he is communicating two important things. First, he is acknowledging that some things can be learned from philosophy. Second, he is also recognising how far faith in Christ excels even very good philosophy. 

Both points are helpful. We are reminded that ‘all truth is God’s truth’. That is absolutely right and has been affirmed by theologians from Basil of Caesarea to John Calvin and beyond. This is often linked to the ‘plundering of the Egyptians’. Christians should value truth, wherever it is found. Connected to this is the recognition that it is in the scriptures that God reveals himself savingly and speaks of his works of creation, redemption, and perfection. I recently saw this connected to the observation that the treasuries of Solomon excelled all the riches of the nations. 

A well-known Christian book from the twentieth century encourages us to ask ‘How Should We Then Live?’ How do these observations from a thirteenth-century teacher of Scripture encourage us to live? Two things come to mind. 

First, we should rightly value knowledge and wisdom wherever they can be found. As I read more theological and biblical thought from Christians down the centuries I am consistently stretched and encouraged. One common reflection, though, is that many of these authors would encourage me to learn more from good philosophy. 

Second, let’s remember that each person with faith in Jesus Christ knows more about God and how to live well than any philosopher without Christ. This encourages me to hold the faith of other Christians in high esteem. What can I learn from them about God? What can they show me about what Christian faith looks like? What do they show me about how to cultivate hope in life’s varied circumstances? How do they show me more of what it looks like to love God and my neighbour well? 

Thomas notes that learning to live well can be slow and laborious and there is much that can be learned from what others see about the world and how to live in it. What God shares with us through faith, however, is greater and more certain. Indeed we ‘ought to believe those things of faith more surely than those which one sees, because human sight can be deceived, but the knowledge of God is never mistaken.’


1. Bruce D. Marshall, "Quod Scit Una Uetula: Aquinas on the Nature of Theology," in The Theology of Thomas Aquinas, ed. Rik Van Nieuwenhove and Joseph Wawrykow (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), p. 1.


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