A few years ago, I was asked to write a short piece on the relevance of Thomas Aquinas to Protestant thought. Such a broad topic deserves a much longer exposition, which in a number of ways I am not qualified to give, so in the spirit not of scholarly analysis but of lay exhortation, I would suggest three basic themes that should interest us as Protestants in Aquinas.
First, Aquinas helped theology to recover the importance of this world as the sphere of God’s redemptive actions. Prior to his day, most theologians focused on the next world so intensively that this world was drastically de-emphasized. Although he is often criticized for making serious use of Aristotle’s philosophy, it was by the constructive, biblically-oriented use of Aristotle’s concern for this world that Aquinas was able to point Christian theology back in the direction of embracing the created world as a good thing. Though he was by no means a proto-Protestant, this theme of Aquinas’ would find eventual fulfillment in the Reformation, which freed the ordinary Christian to serve God in a way that, while not being of the world nevertheless remained firmly in it.
Second, Aquinas shows us a constructive way to relate the teachings of the Bible to a robust use of the intellectual side of our human nature. Aquinas defined faith as simple trust in the things that God tells us, that is, simple trust in the authority of God, just because it is God who speaks. Belief in God’s Word does not require rational proof, for faith as a way of knowing truth transcends the best that our finite reason can accomplish on its own. Nevertheless, Aquinas also insists that reason can play a significant role in the Christian life by providing a way to systematically and intelligently articulate to the world the things that we believe just because God says they are true. Reason does not provide faith itself, but is the perambula fidei, the “preambles to faith.” As such, it is always the servant of faith – a most useful servant, indeed.
Third, Aquinas shows us a constructive way to engage contrary worldviews. Much of his work, which rationally articulated the content of what Christians hold to be true by faith, came about because of the need to answer false worldviews – in his day, Judaism and Islam. But far from getting frustrated with falsehood and those who militantly defend it, and far from adopting a merely negative, polemical posture against falsehood, Aquinas held that faith and reason never do truly conflict, but always mutually support each other. Consequently, he was able to engage contrary worldviews with respect for the rational nature of their adherents as men made in God’s image, and yet at the same time, argue against them with confidence that at the end of the day, Christian theology would always stand vindicated against the claims of other religions.