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Selected Writings

by Thomas Aquinas

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It is characteristic of the Middle Ages that after Thomas Aquinas died he was beheaded. This decapitation wasn’t punitive—it was driven by the same superstition that causes a baseball player to rub a lucky bat before he steps into the on-deck circle. A subprior claimed to be cured of blindness by touching Thomas’s body shortly after he died, which caused different religious groups to covet Thomas’s saintly corpse. The monks who currently “owned” Thomas decided that the wise thing to do would be to cut off his head and hide it in a different place, so that if someone stole the body they would still have the lucky head.

We tend to laugh, until we remember that recently the son of Ted Williams wanted to freeze his father’s corpse, presumably so that we could build a better ballplayer out of Ted’s lucky DNA.

These posthumous shenanigans would have appalled both Williams and Aquinas. Williams knew that he was a great hitter because he willed himself to be a great hitter, and Aquinas knew that he was merely a man with a good head on his shoulders.

Unfortunately, Aquinas’s great mind didn’t get him nearly as far as other great thinkers like Blaise Pascal, Soren Kierkegaard or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Because Aquinas revered Aristotle, his philosophy begins with the physical world and exalts reason. Beginning with the physical world can be dangerous, because it is a fallen physical world (Romans 8:19-22). God certainly reveals Himself through His creation, but the fact that creation now includes death and destruction can lead to poor conclusions. Likewise, reason can be dangerous because it is fallen reason. Men cannot reason to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ—they need to put their faith in Him and His Word before their reason can be fully redeemed.

There are moments when it seems that Aquinas acknowledges these things—but the moments are fleeting. For the most part, he ties himself too closely to the reason of a brilliant pagan philosopher, clouding our need for the Bible to be the foundation for epistemology.

It is possible that Aquinas realized some of this in 1273. According to one story, he saw a vision while he was celebrating Mass, and that vision caused him to stop writing. When his friend Reginald pressed him to resume his writing, Aquinas firmly replied, “I can write no more. I have seen things which make all my writings like straw.”

by Jeff Baldwin