What Lessons Do Thomas Aquinas’s Sermons Hold For Modern Preachers?

The Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas by Francisco de Zurbaran

Son: “All the men who were ordained with me seemed to think that
the faculty of preaching will come to them as a matter of course.”

Father: “Then I pity their congregations.”

—Canon Twells, Colloquies on Preaching

It is strange to think that Thomas Aquinas’s sermons have garnered so little attention over the years, given that he was a prominent member of the Order of Preachers, a group that identified itself precisely by its members’ aptitude for preaching, and that as a Master of the Sacred Page at Paris, one of Thomas’s official duties, along with lecturing on the Bible and engaging in disputation, was preaching. All of his extraordinarily valuable commentaries on the works of Aristotle were, by contrast, largely products of his spare time.

Indeed, according to his earliest biographers, Thomas was renowned as an excellent preacher, not only to educated, “academic” audiences, but to simple uneducated laymen as well. William of Tocco, who in his old age spoke as a witness at Thomas’s canonization enquiry in 1319, testified that he himself had heard Brother Thomas preach and that, on these occasions, “many people came to hear him preach.”1 Another early biographer, Bernardo Gui, says of him that:

To the ordinary faithful he spoke the word of God with singular grace and power, without indulging in far-fetched reasoning or the vanities of worldly wisdom or in the sort of language that serves rather to tickle the curiosity of a congregation than do it any real good. Subtleties he kept for the Schools; to the people he gave solid moral instruction suited to their capacity; he knew that a teacher must always suit his style to his audience.

The people, reports Gui:

heard him with great respect as a real man of God. He was a teacher who taught others to do what he himself was already doing, or rather God in him, according to that saying of the Apostle, “I dare speak of nothing except of what Christ has done in me” (Rom 15.18). Hence his words had a warmth in them that kindled the love of God and sorrow for sin in men’s hearts.2

And yet, although Thomas was renowned as an excellent preacher, and although it was his constant practice to preach, only recently has a modern critical edition of all of Thomas’s extant sermons finally appeared and a capable English translation.3 In what follows, I will try to say enough about the style of Thomas’s sermons to allow the reader to go read them fruitfully, and with enjoyment.4 In the latter part of the article, I suggest a few lessons modern preachers might take from Aquinas.

An Odd First Encounter
Be forewarned: even devoted fans of Aquinas may find the sermons something of an odd read. If the eager reader opened up to “Sermon 5” in Fr. Hoogland’s translation of Thomas’s sermons, for example, he or she would find that the title of the sermon, Ecce rex tuus, has been taken from the first three Latin words in Matthew 21:5: Ecce rex tuus venit tibi mansuetus (“Behold, your king comes to you, meek …”). The sermon itself was delivered on the first Sunday of Advent, probably in the year 1271, and so in accord with the season, we find Thomas beginning by distinguishing the four ways in which we can speak of the coming (the advent) of Christ: first, he comes in the flesh in the Incarnation; second, he comes into the mind of believers; third, he comes to the just after death; and fourth, he comes to judge all things at the end of time. This four-fold distinction seems perfectly appropriate for a sermon in Advent. But it may seem a stretch to find that Thomas associates all four of these senses of Christ’s “coming” with the single Latin word Ecce (“Behold”).

One might have thought Thomas would have made this comment about the four ways in which Christ “comes” while he was commenting upon the word venit (“he comes”), but he has other plans for that word. Thomas reads venit in conjunction with the next word in the sentence, tibi (“he comes for you”), and tells us that these words speak about “the benefits of his (Christ’s) coming” (that is, the benefits of His coming for you), which Thomas lists as: first, making the divine majesty known; second, reconciling us to God; third, freeing us from sin; and fourth, giving us eternal life. The theological content is appropriate, indeed fairly standard. What strains credulity is the idea that all of this content is somehow contained within or communicated by the two small, simple Latin words: venit tibi (“he comes for you”).

So what is going on here? The answer is Thomas is not really “preaching” on the opening biblical verse in the sense of explicating it—as, for example, someone acquainted with the wonderful sermons of John Henry Newman might be led to expect. In Newman’s sermons, one always finds a short biblical passage prefacing the sermon suggesting the theme of what Newman intends to say. At the top of Sermon 8 of his Oxford University Sermons on “Human Responsibility, as Independent of Circumstances,” for example, one finds this verse from Gen. 3.13: “The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.”5 In the first paragraph of his sermon, Newman begins:

The original temptation set before our first parents, was that of proving their freedom, by using it without regard to the will of Him who gave it. The original excuse offered by them after sinning was, that they were not really free, that they had acted under a constraining influence, the subtlety of the tempter. They committed sin that they might be independent of their Maker; they defended it on the ground that they were dependent upon Him. And this has been the course of lawless pride and lust ever since; to lead us, first, to exult in our uncontrollable liberty of will and conduct; then, when we have ruined ourselves, to plead that we are the slaves of necessity.

With this, Newman was off and running, and what follows is a masterful exhortation, in Newman’s own incomparable style, that we should take personal responsibility for our sins.

St. Thomas, as we will see, does not utilize his biblical epigraphs in the same way at all—although to be frank, Newman’s sermon is no more an “exegesis” of Gen. 3.13 than Thomas’s use of biblical epigraphs in his sermons. Newman uses the biblical text to suggest a theme: in this case, sin and human responsibility. Medieval preachers called this opening biblical verse a thema, but it did not provide the “theme” as Newman’s opening verse did. The biblical verses that appear at the beginning of medieval sermons are not texts to be explicated; they are, rather, structuring aids that serve as mnemonic devices that help the listeners to remember more easily the material preached in the sermon.

Both ways of using the opening biblical verse were powerful in their own right for the audiences to whom they were preached, each of which had its own peculiar sort of education and sets of expectations. Newman’s audience at Oxford was highly educated, especially in the humanistic letters, and accustomed to hearing public lectures in a high, Ciceronian style. Thomas’s audience was not as attuned to the grand rhetorical style Newman specialized in, but they seem to have had acquaintance with the arts of memory.6 Few were “well-read” in the sense that Newman’s congregants were, but this did not mean they were entirely “unliterary.”

Many cultures have existed throughout history, and exist today, in which the common people are literary, though not literate. Their knowledge of great texts—whether the stories of Homer’s Iliad, the Scottish Tam Lyn, or the Hebrew Psalms that were originally spoken or sung—had been passed down from generation to generation orally by memory. Thomas’s was a culture in transition between orality and literacy. Books were becoming more common, and yet only the richest owned more than a few books. Monks or friars taught to read may have been the only members of their family, or their small village, ever to do so. And yet, it was not uncommon for monks to have not only all the Psalms committed to memory, but large portions of the other biblical books.

We should not imagine that the common folk in medieval towns and villages were ignorant of the Scriptures either. They may not have read them, but they would have heard Bible verses spoken and sung constantly. Medieval preachers came to understand that in such circumstances, preaching that would allow the content to remain more firmly fixed in the memory was crucial.

The “Modern Sermon” of the Thirteenth Century
The style of preaching medieval doctors, such as Thomas and Bonaventure, utilized was known at the time as the “modern sermon” (sermo modernus) to distinguish it from an earlier method that involved a verse-by-verse series of spiritual meditations. The defining characteristic of the sermo modernus was that the entire sermon was developed out of an opening biblical verse, the thema, which was likened by preaching manuals of the time to the trunk of a tree from which sprung various branches.7

After stating his thema—a Bible verse normally chosen from among the lectionary readings for the day—the medieval preacher would make a divisio of it into several parts, each of which was associated with a subsequent section of the sermon. As we have seen, Thomas chose as his thema for Sermon 5 the first six words from Matthew 21:5: Ecce rex tuus venit tibi mansuetus. In English, the whole verse reads: “Behold your king comes to you, meek, sitting upon a donkey.” Thomas did not wish to develop the last part of the verse (“sitting upon a donkey”), so he simply left it out.

After stating his thema, Thomas then made a fourfold division, each part corresponding to a subsequent section of the sermon.

  • Ecce (“Behold”), in which he discusses the coming (advent) of Christ;
  • rex tuus (“your king”), in which he discusses the conditions of Christ’s coming;
  • venit tibi (“he comes for you”), in which he discusses the benefit of Christ’s coming; and
  • mansuetus (“meek”), in which he discusses the way of Christ’s coming.8

The preacher had some freedom in choosing his thema verse, and even more freedom in choosing how to divide it, but there were also methods in preaching manuals to guide the preacher how to do this well.9

After the preacher had divided the thema, he then had to develop or “dilate” (dilatare) each part. The preaching manuals gave guidance on this too. In Sermon 5, Ecce rex tuus, Thomas chose to dilate the first divisio according to different uses of the word ecce (“behold”). When we say “behold,” we could be: (1) asserting something certain; (2) indicating a determination of time; (3) showing something previously hidden; or (4) comforting a person, as in “behold, I bring you tidings of great joy”). Each of these Thomas associates with the advent of Christ: (1) it is certain; (2) it happened at a determinate point in time; (3) he was made visible; and (4) his coming comforts us.

With the words rex tuus (“your king”), Thomas “dilates” according to the four characteristics of a king: a king suggests unity; a king has fullness of power; a king has fullness of jurisdiction; and a king brings equity of justice.10 Christ possesses each of these to a supreme degree. Thomas repeats this process with venit tibi and mansuetus, each word or group of words suggesting a topic or topics.

When the sermon was preached, the thema also served as a mnemonic device to help the listeners identify their place within the progress of the whole and then recall the contents of the sermon after it was finished. To recall the contents of the sermon, one merely had to bring to mind the opening thema verse, and each word would suggest the topics the preacher had associated with it.11

Could this complexity possibly have characterized popular preaching? David D’Avray offers this reply: “So far as sermon form or technique is concerned, {the thesis that university preaching and popular preaching are fundamentally different} is not the conclusion of recent writers.”12 So, too, Richard and Mary Rouse assure their readers that “the type of sermon evolved at the University of Paris through the course of the thirteenth century was an admirable instrument for routine preaching to laymen.”13

What Might Modern Preachers Learn from the Thirteenth Century “Modern Sermon”?
Could modern preachers possibly learn anything from these odd sermons? Certainly the audience for this style of preaching is long gone. Indeed, it’s so odd that I wrote an entire book to explain it so modern audiences could appreciate it. But I believe all effective preaching, whether Newman’s, Augustine’s, or Aquinas’s, has lessons to teach, even if we can’t now preach just the way they did. So let me suggest that, among the lessons modern preachers might learn from the “modern sermon” style of Aquinas, there are at least these four:

  • Realizing the importance of adequate preparation to provide,
  • a coherent structure, which will help one’s listeners to
  • remember the points in the sermon and the key Scripture passages.

There is also a fourth point, somewhat less important, about avoiding “little fables.”

Adequate Preparation
One doesn’t preach a “modern sermon” without some serious preparation. The style does not lend itself to ad libbing or free association. One had to choose the appropriate thema verse, then decide upon a suitable division into various parts, including how each part would be dilated to make the points the preacher wanted to make.

This was not simple, but it was easier than we might imagine, and this for two reasons. First, the words of the text suggest the topics to be covered. When someone, like Thomas Aquinas, reads the words “comes,” “king,” “your,” and “meek,” he already has what modern writers would call a “prompt.” Reflecting on these key words helped him formulate the points in the sermon.

Medieval preachers also had numerous preaching manuals to help them make these verbal associations. One of the most important were collections of biblical distinctiones, which provided for a given scriptural term “several figural meanings, and for each meaning provided a passage of scripture illustrating the use of the term in the given sense.”14 Two examples will have to suffice.

In Thomas Aquinas’s sermon, Inveni David, delivered on the Feast of St. Nicholas, and based on the thema verse from Psalm 88:21: “I have found David my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him; my hand will assist him and my arm will make him firm,” Thomas “dilates” the second part of the verse—“with my holy oil I have anointed him”—by pointing out the oil is used for four purposes: (1) for the healing of a wound; (2) as fuel for light; (3) to season the taste of food; and (4) to soften. Thomas relates each of these figuratively with a virtue of St. Nicholas: (1) he was anointed with the oil of healing grace; (2) he had the light of wisdom; (3) he imparted spiritual joy as seasoning gives joy in food; and (4) “to soften” signifies mercy and kindness of heart, and Nicholas was completely filled with mercy and devotion. Thomas might have found these four uses of oil—healing of a wound, fuel, seasoning, and softening—along with biblical passages to illustrate each, in just such a book of distinctiones.

So too, Richard and Mary Rouse provide the following example from the Summa Abel of Peter Cantor. Under the heading avis (bird), one finds these entries:

Tending unto the heights, namely the just. Whence fish and birds are of the same matter. But fish, that is, evil men, remain in the waters of this age; birds, that is, good men, tend unto the heights.

Remaining on high, namely an angel. Whence: “In the secret of your private chamber, detract not the king, because the birds of heaven will announce it.” (Eccl 10:20)

Falling down from on high, namely the proud. Whence: “If you ascend into heaven as an eagle, from thence I will bring you down.” (Obadiah 4)

Rapacity, namely the devil. Whence in the parable of the seed it is said that the birds of the sky ate it. (Luke 8:5)

Consumption, that is the tumult of evil thoughts. Whence Abraham drove birds away from the flesh of the sacrificed {animals} (Gen 15:11).

Prelates. Whence the bird nested in the mustard bush (Matt 13.31-32), that is, the prelate in the catholic faith.

With these reference works to help him, a medieval preacher could look up each of the key words in his thema verse and see what interesting associations, literal or figurative, he might make. But this process took time, involved planning, and required the willingness to use the preaching aids available.

The Value of Coherent Structure
Among classical orators in the ancient Roman world, the five classic canons for putting together an effective speech were said to be:

  1. Inventio: “finding” an appropriate topic;
  2. Dispositio: arranging the parts in a persuasive order;
  3. Elocutio: perfecting the presentation;
  4. Memoria: memorizing the speech;
  5. Actio: delivery.

Medieval preachers knew these five canons, since most had studied the Rhetorica ad Herennium during their baccalareus years. What the sermo modernus style offered them was a new method of inventio, that is, of discovering a suitable topic. This was an inventio guided by the words in the opening thema verse. The order of the words in the thema also suggested the order, the dispositio, of the parts of the sermon.

The sermo modernus style became popular, I would suggest, precisely because it provided not only a method of inventio, of finding a topic—one keyed purposefully to the Scriptural reading for the day—but also a method of constructing and ordering the material of the sermon. Methods of “dividing” and “dilating” sermons were also covered in preaching manuals and helped preachers to discern how to develop biblical verses into sermon material.

Crafting for Memory
This whole process was designed to foster memoria. The opening biblical verse functioned as an elaborate mnemonic device to help the listeners associate the topics covered with the words in the verse. Memoria, which in the classical world was something the speaker did for himself—he memorized his speech—became in the medieval experience something to help listeners. Much as modern music students use the phrase “Every good boy does fine” to help remember the notes of the treble clef E, G, B, D, F, and medical students associate the bones of the wrist (the Scaphoid, Lunate, Triquetral, Pisiform, Trapezium, Trapezoid, Capitate, and Hamate bones) with the phrase “So Long To Pinky, Here Comes The Thumb,” so too medieval listeners could, by calling to mind the opening biblical verse, recall large portions of the sermon.

I try this experiment on audiences all the time. After reviewing all the steps in Thomas’s sermon, Ecce rex tuus, I put the opening verse back on the screen and ask them to see whether they can recall from “Behold” the four manifestations of Christ’s coming: in the flesh; into the mind of each person; to the just at the time of their death; and as judge at the end of time. Does “your king” remind them of the condition of Christ’s coming: His unity with God the Father; that He has fullness of power; that He has dominion over all; and that He brings equity of justice? Does the word “your” additionally help remind them of the similitude of image between Him and man; His special love for man; His solicitude and singular care for man; and His conformity with our human nature? Do the words “for you” remind them of the utility of His coming: to manifest to us His divine majesty; to reconcile us to God from whom, through sin, we were estranged as enemies; to liberate us from servitude to sin; and to give us grace in the present, and glory in the future? And does the word “meek” remind them of the manner of his coming: that He showed “meekness” in His conversation, in His gentle correction of others, in His gracious acceptance of men (not only the just, but also sinners), and in His passion, to which He was led meekly as a lamb? The question isn’t whether listeners remember each and every point, but whether the associations helped them to recall more than they thought they would.

My point isn’t that modern preachers should adopt this style, merely that they should consider crafting their sermons in such a way that, by using the expressive power of words and images and paying attention to the order and development of the whole, they can make the sermon something listeners can recall after they’ve exited the church.

Keep the Scriptures Front and Center
Crafting a sermon to enable parishioners to remember the content is doubly important when it comes to remembering the Scripture readings for the day. If the sermon hasn’t helped burn these words meaningfully into the people’s memories, then the preacher has missed the mark.

There are many ways of doing this, and I am not suggesting that Thomas Aquinas’s way is always the best. Once you’ve worked your way through one of Thomas’s sermons, however, you never forget the opening biblical verse. I am not one who has committed many biblical verses to memory, but I have no trouble any more remembering, “Behold, your king comes to you meek.” Having read St. Bernard’s sermons on the Song of Songs, I also have no trouble remembering the phrase “Kiss me with the kiss of your mouth.” Anyone who has an acquaintance with those sermons knows that Bernard repeats the phrase over and over again, weaving it with a kind of poetic grace into nearly every line. A good exegesis of a confusing text also works well and leaves me saying: “Now that passage really makes sense.” A good example of this virtue can be found in a series of homilies on the Genesis creation stories Cardinal Ratzinger gave when he was archbishop of Munich, published in English under the title, A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and Fall (Eerdman’s). The history of preaching is full of such worthy examples from which contemporary preachers can take valuable lessons. The sermons of Aquinas provide one good example.

A Caveat Concerning Exempla
It is not uncommon for modern preachers to start with a personal story or a joke. There was a medieval counter-part known as exempla. These were little pious stories, and volumes were filled with them for preachers to use. And yet Thomas never uses them. They are, in fact, conspicuous by their absence. If you check St. Bonaventure’s Sunday Sermons, you’ll find he never uses them either. Here we have arguably the two greatest preachers of the thirteenth century, and neither of them uses these popular exempla.

I have no wish to deny the value of using concrete “examples” to help illustrate the points in a sermon since, as many medieval preaching manuals point out, the common people tend to enjoy visual imagery more than abstract reasoning. And yet, there may be good reasons Thomas never had much use for them. In Paradiso 29.109–117, Dante has Beatrice chastise preachers for their use of these jokes and little stories:

Christ did not say to his first company:
“Go, and preach idle stories to the world”;
but he gave them the teaching that is truth,

and truth alone was sounded when they spoke;
and thus, to battle to enkindle faith,
the Gospels served them as both shield and lance.

But now men go to preach with jests and jeers,
and just as long as they can raise a laugh,
the cowl puffs up, and nothing more is asked.15

So, too, the early thirteenth-century Dominican friar, Jacopo Passavanti (ca. 1302–1357), suggests that some of his fellow preachers were acting more like “jongleurs and storytellers and buffoons” than like the preachers they were supposed to be.

In retrospect, one imagines there were both good exempla and bad. Many of us have had the privilege of hearing sermons with interesting and illuminating stories or especially illustrative examples from great literature or the lives of the saints. And yet, this is not always the case.

Telling stories—providing exempla—can be a good means of preaching and teaching. And yet, they can also be overused or poorly used. Thomas, for whatever reason, did not use them at all, at least not in the sermons that have come down to us. Rather, Thomas remarks in a series of responses to his contemporary, Gerard of Besançon, that, “it is not proper for the preacher of truth to be diverted to unverifiable fables” (ad fabulas ignotas divertere).16 And Thomas’s biographer, Fr. Jean-Pierre Torrell, tells us: “Thomas believes orators need an art that can move feelings, but he refuses to reduce that art to the wisdom of this world. That is why we scarcely find in him those little stories (exempla) so valued by so many preachers. He warns us, on the contrary, against what he calls ‘frivolities’ (frivolitates).”17

Flexibility within Structure
I suggest that the medieval sermon style—as practiced by its best preachers—succeeds admirably in communicating clearly and above all memorably the basic elements of the Christian faith. It excels in moral instruction and exhortation, and although its manner of presenting the Scriptures was not contextual, it was memorable. In this way, preachers clarified to their listeners that the Scriptures were something important, something worthy of their attention and respect, and not merely a historical artifact of interest only to specialists in archaic cultures.

Thomas’s sermons encouraged a moral and existential encounter with the biblical text, constantly challenging the listener to ask, not only “What does the text say?” but also “What (or in Whom) do I believe?” “How should I live?” And “to what end am I headed?”

Such was the value of medieval preachers being able to move easily from the literal level of the text to the allegorical or christocentric meaning, then finally to the anagogical and the moral. There was an admirable attention to the expressive power of words, and an impressive flexibility within the context of a fairly clear structure that, in my view, makes the medieval practice of preaching worthy of emulation, even if we continue to find it odd.

  1. See the testimony of William of Tocco in “From the First Canonisation Enquiry,” sec. LVIII, in: Kenelm Foster, O.P., tr., ed., The Life of St. Thomas Aquinas: Biographical Documents (London: Longmans, Green, 1959), 97.
  2. Cf. Bernardo Gui, The Life of St. Thomas Aquinas, c. 29; quoted from Foster, Biographical Documents, 47-8. Both William of Tocco and Bernardo Gui also suggest that Thomas preached to the faithful in his native Italian, and when in Naples, in South Italian (cf. Foster, Biographical Documents, 74, n. 68). Sadly, none of these sermons have survived.
  3. ancti Thomae de Aquino Opera Omnia, vol. 44, ed. L. J. Bataillon, O.P. (Collection “La Leonine,” 2014). English: Thomas Aquinas: The Academic Sermons, tr. Mark-Robin Hoogland, C.P., The Fathers of the Church: Mediaeval Continuation (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010).
  4. I have also published a book with the same goal: Randall Smith, Reading the Sermons of Aquinas: A Guide for Beginners (Emmaus Road, 2016); hereafter, just Sermons.
  5. John Henry Newman, “Sermon 8” in Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford Between 1826 and 1843 (3rd rev. ed., reprinted by University of Notre Dame Press, 1997).
  6. For a fuller treatment of the arts of memory in the Middle Ages, see Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
  7. See Michèle Mulcahey, First the Bow is Bent in Study: Dominican Education Before 1350 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1998), 404-405.
  8. I discuss this sermon in greater detail in Sermons, 4-11. See also the analytic outline on pp. 240-243.
  9. For more on the various methods of divisio, see Sermons, 49-112.
  10. For more on the most common methods of dilatatio, see Sermons, 113-180.
  11. For a discussion of the difference between “memory” and “recollection” and on their importance for appreciating the sermo modernus style, see Sermons, 11-19.
  12. D’Avray, 193.
  13. Rouse, Preachers, 84.
  14. I have taken this useful “omnibus definition” from Rouse, 68.
  15. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Paradiso, trans. Mandelbaum (New York: Bantam Books, 1984).
  16. Responsi ad lectorem Bisuntinum, in Leonine edition vol. 42 (1979), 355 and online at “Corpus Thomisticum” under “Responsio de 6 articulis ad lectorem Bisuntinum,” Quaestio 3.
  17. Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. 1, The Person and His Work, rev. ed., trans. R. Royal (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2005), 72–73.
Dr. Randall B. Smith, Ph.D. About Dr. Randall B. Smith, Ph.D.

Prof. Randall Smith is an Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He is currently the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, where he is at work on a reader of classic texts in the natural law tradition from Homer to Pope Benedict XVI. He is also a regular contributor to the daily blog “The Catholic Thing.”

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