As a student of Christian history, I find the details of the lives of Christendom’s giants to be fascinating, inspiring, and even amusing. I hope that the following experiences in Thomas Aquinas’s life will do the same for you as you see the common humanity in our union with Christians from all times.

Many people consider St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) to be the greatest thinker in the history of Christendom. A medieval scholastic philosopher and theologian, Aquinas’s system of thought (called “Thomism”) was declared the official philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church. In a life span of fewer than 50 years, he became a voluminous writer and masterful defender of classical Christian theism. Written almost 750 years ago, Summa Theologiae is arguably Aquinas’s magnum opus.

Yet, while he is one of the most famous philosophers in all of Western civilization, there are three things you may not know about Aquinas.1 You may find them surprising.

1. Thomas was ridiculed as a young person.

Thomas was born in the family castle of Roccasecca midway between Rome and Naples, Italy—the youngest son of the knight Landulf of Aquino (thus the name “Aquinas”) in the High Middle Ages. At the tender age of five, he began his schooling at the famous Abbey of Monte Cassino where he was educated by the priests and monks of the Benedictine order of the Catholic Church. He was heavyset and slow of speech as a young person so some of his fellow students called him “the dumb ox.” Ironically, Thomas was anything but unintelligent. He would go on to prove himself a philosophical and theological genius. In fact, Thomas may have possessed the brightest mind in Christian history.

2. Thomas’s parents opposed his desire to become a Dominican priest.

The Dominican Order, also known as the Order of the Preachers (OP), was founded by St. Dominic de Guzman in 1219. At nineteen, Thomas decided to join the order, but it didn’t carry the prestige and influence as that of the Benedictines, with which Thomas and his family had been previously associated. The story is that his parents had him kidnapped and locked away to try to dissuade him of his choice in religious orders. Yet Thomas was deeply committed to becoming a priest and, after a year in captivity, his mother arranged for him to “escape” through a window and he went on to join the Dominican order.

3. Thomas had a powerful vision that made him give up his writing career.

While saying mass one day, Aquinas experienced a mystical vision that was so powerful it made him view everything he had written as “straw worthy to be burned.” His vision of heavenly realities left him thinking that he could not adequately describe the profound mysteries revealed in Christian theology. Although his masterpiece Summa Theologiae consists of some two million words, he left it unfinished when he died at 49 years of age.

Even people who are familiar with his life and thought may not know of these three events. Aquinas’s achievements as a Christian scholar mark him as one of the most advanced thinkers of his time and the rationality of historic Christianity is in part demonstrated by the remarkable thinkers the faith has produced through the centuries. Yet, he was also a man who faced challenges and difficulties in his life just like all of us.

So, how about taking up his book Summa Theologiae? You’ll be reading a Christian classic as well as a masterwork of Western civilization.

Reflections: Your Turn

Which of the three points about Aquinas did you find most interesting? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment.

Resources

For more about Thomas Aquinas and his accomplishments as a Christian thinker and writer, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Classic Christian Thinkers (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2019), chapter 5.

Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org

Endnotes

1. G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox (New York: Doubleday, 1933).

About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.



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