Teaching the Faith: Contributions from Thomas Aquinas

God’s love, mediated through the articles of faith, is a communication of God’s love speaking to us. Those who hear, and cling to the merciful speech of God, in faith, are the ones who attain this saving knowledge.

 

“But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” – Luke 18:8
This is a striking, and relevant, question. It has become somewhat common to note the inadequate retention rates of many RCIA and sacramental catechesis programs in parishes. Recent converts cycle in and out of programs, seemingly designed to teach the faith, only to find at the end of the program that they are still incapable of connecting to an authentic faith life in the Church. Many pastors will see people walk into their parishes, then quickly walk back out. The poignancy of Jesus’ question for the Church of the 21st century is, therefore, very much relevant. The problem, naturally, elicits another question: What are some solutions to the need for robust and abiding catechesis at the parish level?

Looking to the traditions of the Church, any catechist will inevitably fall upon the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. One encounters in Aquinas a master of theological understanding. He was a man guided by the Holy Spirit, who pursued the science of God in wisdom and truth, which directed his every teaching towards the goal of every man: eternal life. Aquinas was not purely an academic, but a man who found his abiding attraction to God in the love that God first had for him. It was this love that urged him to write his Summa Theologiae for the sake of beginners, so that they, too, could be ever pointed toward their final goal and lead others in that direction. Likewise, it is the goal of every catechist to orient his or her students to that same end. Recourse to Aquinas’ method of teaching, therefore, is certainly relevant for the catechist of the 21st century.

In this short essay, I will draw upon the prevailing wisdom of Aquinas and his importance for catechists today. I will first outline Aquinas’ thought on the role of teaching, using the structure of the Summa Theologiae as an example of theological teaching. Next, I will develop how his thought on teaching corresponds to his teaching on the Articles of Faith. In summation, I will describe how the wisdom of Aquinas provides a model for catechists today in orienting their students towards the goal of Christian life.

Aquinas on Teaching

Aquinas saw the reality and dignity of being a human person in the fact that the individual is able to come to know the truth and choose the good. 1 Responsibility for knowledge cannot be passed to some over-arching force: it belongs to each person individually. The enjoyment of knowledge and truth that each person attains is that individual person’s enjoyment of knowledge and truth. Here, Aquinas is concerned with safeguarding the experiential knowledge of the human person as a truly human and personal act. For Aquinas, the student really grows in knowledge through experience, and the knowledge in which he grows he can truly call his own.

In one sense, God is the only real teacher because it is God who equips us with the capacity to know the truth, as the Psalmist teaches: “Does the one who teaches man not have knowledge?” (Psalm 94:10). At the same time, because of the dignity of man, human teachers really do something for their students. In the order and wonder of creation, some creatures share in the power of God to affect other creatures. For Aquinas, good teaching meant aiding the imagination of the student to be at the service of understanding, directly affecting the hearts of students. His preferred analogy to make this point is that of a doctor. Just as a doctor cannot replace the nature of a human person, but can assist it in various ways, so the teacher cannot replace a student’s intellectual process, but can assist it in various ways. 2 The teacher does not brighten the student’s intellectual capacity, but helps the student see things he has not seen before. This includes not only new things for the student to consider, but also points out connections that the student, left to himself, might not see. The structure of Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae provides a pedagogical example of this.

Structure as Pedagogy

As Servais Pinckaers O.P. remarks, Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae “boasts a profound unity because in it, the very source of theological knowledge–awareness of God–is communicated to us through faith and the gifts of wisdom and knowledge.” 3 It is an integrated theological exercise, joining the practical with the speculative. The basic structure follows a dogma-morals-dogma schema, encompassing a God-oriented unity of theological reasoning. In the Prima Pars (dogma), the nature of the Triune God is discussed, followed by creation and the human person. The second part (morals) is divided into two sections: the Prima Secundae and the Secunda Secundae. The Prima Secundae begins with a discussion of the general principles of moral theology: the study of human actions, passions, virtues, Gifts of the Holy Spirit, vices, sin, and law, culminating in Aquinas’ treatise on grace. Aquinas’ emphasis on grace holds the moral edifice together because it is only through God’s grace that there is true power for moral excellence. The Secunda Secundae follows with a detailed discussion of the virtues, their corresponding relations to the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, and their contrary vices and sins. Thomas’ treatise on the virtues begins with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, which have God as their object, followed by the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. The virtuous life for Aquinas is interconnected, and the virtues are described in respect to the ways in which they mutually influence and relate to one another. The Tertia Pars (dogma) follows with a discussion of the person and life of Christ, and the sacramental economy. Here, we find how the human person is enlivened by grace through Christ by way of the sacraments, leading him to true happiness.

The structure of the Summa attempts to reproduce the very movement of divine wisdom and divine action in the work of creation, culminating in man, who is made to the imago Dei, and the work of government, leading all creatures back to God as their ultimate goal and happiness. Aquinas’ theological teaching mirrors the way in which revelation has happened. He puts into words the way in which God, as teacher, has taught humanity, and the purpose for which God’s teaching has been made: a divine reunion with God in heaven. In this structure, Aquinas “is thinking not only about how to present theology in a material way, but is thinking also of the students studying theology for particular spiritual and pastoral purposes,” 4 states Dominican Vivian Boland. Theology is structured around the truths of salvation and beatitude, having a pedagogical purpose. Aquinas impresses this point in the mind of the student in the opening article of the Summa, in his comments on Sacred Doctrine: “. . . in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation.” 5 For Aquinas, beatitude is not simply one of the varied key themes of Christian theology, but precisely that which students of Christian theology are ordered to enter into through faith in Jesus Christ. It is impossible, therefore, to separate the study of the moral section of the Summa from the study of the triune God in the first part, and from the Christological and sacramental dimensions found in the third part. The unified whole of Christian teaching necessarily requires, for its proper reception, a way of Christian living that is total and full.  Aquinas’ teaching in the Summa is a profoundly unified theological whole, which exemplifies a pedagogically useful tool in teaching the truths of Christianity, ordered toward the goal of Christian life. In its structure and teaching, the Summa provides that way of living called for in the Gospel. In particular, Aquinas’ teaching on the articles of faith, though not as substantial as the Summa, provides a microcosm of the way of living which is ordered toward beatitude.

The Articles of Faith

One indispensable component in any teaching is the conversation between teacher and student–specifically, the appeal to the imagination through signs. This is precisely how Jesus taught his disciples, taking them to himself as his friends, revealing to them, through signs and language, everything he had learned from the Father. 6 For the Christian teacher today, the articles of faith can act as signs for students, leading them to the true reality they represent. Not only are the articles of faith conduits, or icons, into which the student can peer, but together they form a complete whole of Christian truth ordered toward eternal life.

In the very first question of the Secunda Secundae, the question on faith, Aquinas addresses the role the articles play in the Christian life. He begins by speaking of “articles” as a fitting together of distinct parts. In other words, the articles cohere according to a determined order, like a body and its limbs. This means that each of the articles is able to be joined to other articles in a coherent interrelatedness measured against the integrity of the whole body of Christian truth. For Aquinas, this body of Christian truth is inherently ordered to beatitude, and those things which directly order us to eternal beatitude are, in themselves, of faith. Proposed to us as divinely revealed, the essential articles of the Christian Creed include: the mysteries of the Holy Trinity and Christ’s Incarnation. 7 It is precisely these articles of faith, which center upon the source of our being and salvation–the mystery of God–which order the Christian believer toward eternal life. This faith in the essential articles of the Christian Creed is exacted upon man by a necessity of end, 8 as Hebrews 11:6 states, “but without faith it is impossible to please him, for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists, and that he rewards those who seek him.” Because the articles of faith order the human person to possess eternal life, they stand on their own as the necessary pillars of faith. Yet, outside of the articles of faith, other teachings proposed for our belief can manifest the articles more clearly. For example, the Church’s doctrine on purgatory, the final purification of the Church suffering, helps to elucidate the article of the Creed that expresses Christian belief in eternal life: entry into the joy of heaven is for those who have been made holy by the grace of God.

Although Aquinas outlines the articles in a scientific or systematic way, and their structured coherence can be understood rationally, the Dominican theologian Romanus Cessario further clarifies that “the knowledge of faith belongs preeminently to those who are in love with a personal God, and who, therefore, rely on his truthfulness.” 9 The articles of faith are not to be appropriated as mere information, useful for obtaining some end. They represent the true Revelation of the personal God who loves each of us individually. God’s love, mediated through the articles of faith, is a communication of God’s love speaking to us. Those who hear, and cling to the merciful speech of God, in faith, are the ones who attain this saving knowledge.

Faith acts as a way of knowing, and the structure of knowing portrays a real giving and receiving between the knower and what is known. When this happens between persons it becomes a relationship of love. This relationship rests on the articles of faith as being truth-bearing. For Aquinas, the articles of faith find their immediate context within the generous outpouring of God, locating the end of Truth to be in the height of the human vocation, and the fulfillment of faith–the beatific vision. Cessario identifies this outpouring as the joy of heaven, where many persons share in a single community of beatifying truth. He further compares this sharing in the joy of heaven to life in the Church:

From God and the blessed, to the angels, to the prophets, to Christ and his apostles, to the prelates and teachers and preachers of the Church, Aquinas claims a formal community in those who are taught, the things taught, and one universal causal ordering that moves from principal through instrumental or ministerial teachers. 10

For Christian teachers and students, the articles of faith serve as the instruments of God’s universal outpouring of truth, which finds its fulfillment in the free offer of friendship with Jesus Christ, leading toward eternal life. God speaks truthfully to us in the articles, and these truths ground our friendship with him who first loves us.

Faith in the articles, therefore, does not rest in the actual words spoken or read in the Creed, but in God himself, who first spoke these words in a human mode for us, so that we might know him. In other words, God as Truth, in order that he may be known, manifests himself instrumentally, in human mode, in the articles of faith. Inherently instrumental, the articles as propositions serve as true objects of faith–“things” to be believed–and believing in them, finds its ultimate end in the divine reality that they represent. These “things” refer in an immediate way to the central mysteries of the Christian faith, but in an ultimate way to God himself, who is the source of, and resting place of, all faith. In making the human judgment to believe in a given article–to have faith in some aspect of God through that article–the human mode of knowing truly attains God through the mediation of an article.

How does this help the everyday person flourish in a Christian life? Consider the Incarnation as an article of faith. Because the Church confesses the doctrine of the Incarnation, each of the faithful must give assent to the proposition that the Incarnate Word is truly God, and truly man. The very “is” of the proposition seized by an act of faith is the “is” of the thing believed–in this case, the special grace of the Incarnation–mediated through the proposition.  In other words, the very act of belief in a given article of faith connects the Christian soul to the very grace of the thing believed. Belief in the Incarnation ushers into man a unique and particular grace of the Incarnation, where man is elevated and more perfectly conformed to Christ. As Aquinas remarks, “Since it was the will of God’s only-begotten Son that men should share in his divinity, he assumed our nature in order that, by becoming man, he might make men gods.” 11 The graces mediated through these articles ultimately point us toward, and effectively make, the Christian person ready for entry into eternal friendship with God. The truth-bearing statements of the articles operate as instruments of our salvation, uniquely wedding us to God through faith.

Aquinas and Catechesis

The teacher and catechist today can learn much from Aquinas’ own pedagogy and teaching. 12 A successful program of catechesis begins with an ordering of the whole program toward its desired end. In the case of teaching Christian truth, that end is ushering the believer into an authentic faith life within the Church, oriented toward eternal beatitude. Recourse to the structure of Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, and its God-centered orientation–beginning with God, and returning to God, through the grace offered to man through Christ and His Sacraments–provides a model for any program of catechesis. In this theological ethos, there is always room for adjustment, emphasizing this or that aspect of the faith, given the circumstances and needs of the persons in a given program. Nonetheless, the pedagogy of Aquinas can help the catechist structure his or her program thematically upon the necessities of Christian faith.

Aquinas’ insights about the interrelatedness and truth-bearing quality of the articles of faith also provide useful tools for the modern catechist. Too often, teachers of the faith are at pains to show connections between given articles of the faith, while maintaining a unifying principle. Recourse to Aquinas’ systematic approach to the articles allows the catechist to see the mysteries of the Godhead, and the Incarnation, always in relation to eternal beatitude. If that is the case, teachers of the faith, through the example set forth by Aquinas, can begin to see the articles, not as mere information to be communicated, but as truth-bearing statements that build upon each other, culminating in a whole picture. Along the way, the catechist can point out how each article provides an instrument that allows the human mind to see God, and to cling to him in new and profound ways.

Aquinas’ pedagogy and theological analysis, as precise and true as they may be, nevertheless do not replace the genuine love for God instilled within the heart of the student. This love is effectively placed in the student’s heart by the grace of God–but it is incumbent upon the teacher of theological truth to assist his or her students in recognizing the true nature of that love. Catechists do this by revealing to their students the love God has for them, on both an intellectual and an affective level. In this, catechists can truly follow the example of Aquinas, whose intellectual gifts to the Church were primarily drawn forth from the love he first recognized as coming from God. The faith of the master theologian–his way of living–enlivened by charity with the hope of eternal beatitude, is the same faith and way of living the Son of Man hopes to find on earth when he comes again.

 


[1] Aquinas’ thoughts on teaching can be found in the Summa Theologiae I. q.117, a.1, and in his question on the teaching of Christ in Summa Theologiae III. q.42, a.4.

[2] De Veritate, q.11.

[3] Servais Pinckaers, O.P., The Sources of Christian Ethics, trans. Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. (Washington D.C.: CUA Press, 2001), 221.

[4] Vivian Boland, O.P., “The Healing Work of Teaching: Thomas Aquinas and Education” in Behold the Heritage: Foundations of Education in the Dominican Tradition, ed., Sr. Matthew Marie Cummings, O.P., Sr. Elizabeth Anne Allen, O.P. (Tacoma, Washington: Angelico Press, 2012), 279.

[5] Summa Theologiae I. q.1, a.1. See Fergus Kerr, O.P., After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism (Oxford: Blackwells, 2002), 128ff, where he shows how beatitude is a theme that structures the whole Summa Theologiae.

[6] See Michael Sherwin, O.P., “Christ the Teacher in St. Thomas’s Commentary on the Gospel of John,” in Reading John with St. Thomas Aquinas: Theological Exegesis and Speculative Theology, eds. Michael Dauphinais and Matthew Levering, (Washington D.C.: CUA Press, 2005), 173-193.

[7] Aquinas orders the Creed into 14 distinct articles, equally divided between the mystery of the Godhead, and the mystery of the Incarnation. The mystery of the Godhead includes: the unity of the Godhead, the Trinity of the Godhead, and the works of the Godhead–including creation, sanctification, last things, and eternal glory. The mystery of the Incarnation includes: the Incarnation, the virginal birth, the passion, descent into hell, the resurrection, the ascension, and the coming in judgment.

[8] Summa Theologie, II-IIae, q.1, a.6. Aquinas states further in article 9 that “a man cannot believe, unless the truth be proposed to him that he may believe it. Hence, the need for the truth of faith to be collected together, so that it might the more easily be proposed to all, lest anyone might stray from the truth through ignorance of the faith.” This collection of the truths of faith is the articles of the Christian Creed.

[9] Romanus Cessario, O.P., Christian Faith and Theological Life (Washington D.C.: CUA Press, 1996), 68.

[10] Cessario, Christian Faith and Theological Life, 68-69.

[11] Corpus Christi Office of Readings from Opusculum 57.

[12] See the Summa Contra Gentiles, I.1, where Aquinas quotes Aristotle: “It belongs to the wise man to order.”


“But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” – Luke 18:8

  1. Aquinas’ thoughts on teaching can be found in the Summa Theologiae I. q.117, a.1, and in his question on the teaching of Christ in Summa Theologiae III. q.42, a.4.
  2. De Veritate, q.11.
  3. Servais Pinckaers, O.P., The Sources of Christian Ethics, trans. Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. (Washington D.C.: CUA Press, 2001), 221.
  4.  Vivian Boland, O.P., “The Healing Work of Teaching: Thomas Aquinas and Education” in Behold the Heritage: Foundations of Education in the Dominican Tradition, ed. Sr. Matthew Marie Cummings, O.P., Sr. Elizabeth Anne Allen, O.P. (Tacoma, Washington: Angelico Press, 2012), 279.
  5. Summa Theologiae I. q.1, a.1. See Fergus Kerr, O.P., After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism (Oxford: Blackwells, 2002), 128ff, where he shows how beatitude is a theme that structures the whole Summa Theologiae.
  6. See Michael Sherwin, O.P., “Christ the Teacher in St. Thomas’s Commentary on the Gospel of John,” in Reading John with St. Thomas Aquinas: Theological Exegesis and Speculative Theology, eds. Michael Dauphinais and Matthew Levering, (Washington D.C.: CUA Press, 2005), 173-193.
  7. Aquinas orders the Creed into 14 distinct articles, equally divided between the mystery of the Godhead, and the mystery of the Incarnation. The mystery of the Godhead includes: the unity of the Godhead, the Trinity of the Godhead, and the works of the Godhead–including creation, sanctification, last things, and eternal glory. The mystery of the Incarnation includes: the Incarnation, the virginal birth, the passion, descent into hell, the resurrection, the ascension, and the coming in judgment.
  8. Summa Theologie, II-IIae, q.1, a.6. Aquinas states further in article 9 that “a man cannot believe, unless the truth be proposed to him that he may believe it. Hence, the need for the truth of faith to be collected together, so that it might the more easily be proposed to all, lest anyone might stray from the truth through ignorance of the faith.” This collection of the truths of faith is the articles of the Christian Creed.
  9. Romanus Cessario, O.P., Christian Faith and Theological Life (Washington D.C.: CUA Press, 1996), 68.
  10. Cessario, Christian Faith and Theological Life, 68-69.
  11. Corpus Christi Office of Readings from Opusculum 57.
  12. See the Summa Contra Gentiles, I.1, where Aquinas quotes Aristotle: “It belongs to the wise man to order.”
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avatar About Br. Michael Weibley, OP

Brother Michael Weibley entered the Order of Preachers in 2010. He is a graduate of Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio, where he studied history and philosophy. He is studying for the priesthood at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.

Comments

  1. avatar Christopher Knuffke says:

    God’s love is mediated through His words and deeds (Dei Verbum), which is summarized in the articles of faith. Our faith is not in the articles or formulas of faith, but rather the realities they express (CCC). And shouldn’t the catechist first look to the Catechism of the Catholic Church / Compendium / YouCat (catechesis), rather than first to the Summa (theology)??

  2. avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Thank you Brother Weibly for your fine paper on St. Thomas Aquinas teacher extraordinaire . In the Summa and Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas and the Dominicans at the University of Padua and, lastly, at the University of Paris, conclude with solid answers in the questiones disputantis . . . The catechist, or professor of catechism or theology, should have love for the truth of God as given by St.Thomas Aquinas so that it can be given to others.

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