I have been working on an apologetics book that is based upon Saint Thomas Aquinas and his works. Although I have presented quite a bit of information here in this post, it is only a small portion of what will be in the book. I have taken a portion of the material that I have written pertaining to how Saint Thomas viewed Doctrine and Scripture, and I have condensed it down and edited for this blog post. I am proud to offer this essay on the feast day of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and I hope that it helps to clear up the confusion that has surrounded Saint Thomas' writings. I hope that those who have been mislead into believing that his writings support the heresy of "Sola Scriptura" will come away with a new and more accurate image of Saint Thomas and his writings. I have broken up the post with some pictures, so you can stop and take a breather every once in awhile. I apologize for the HTML problems with the text not being uniform in the paragraphs. Perhaps someone can give me a hint as to how to correct it! Enjoy!
Saint Thomas Aquinas, Divine Revelation and Sacra Doctrina
By Matthew Bellisario Jan 28th, 2010.
Saint Thomas' Historical Background
Saint Thomas Aquinas is one of the greatest Latin dogmatic theologians the Church has ever produced. There have been attempts by those outside the Church to brand him as some type of pre-Protestant theologian, subscribing him to a form of “Scripture Alone” theology. Although some passages taken in isolation may at first glance appear to put him in such a category, more extensive reading of his material will prove him to be much in line with current Catholic dogmatic theology, which subscribes to the Scriptures as being God’s written Word, being of the same substance of His Oral Word, as taught and proclaimed infallibly by Holy Mother Church in Rome. Although much can be said of the Catholic Church, it is Catholic teaching that the Church is not above God’s Word, but only serves it. As we will see, Saint Thomas thought the same. In fact, Saint Thomas did not view any of these elements as being separate entities, and they all fit together almost as the Holy Trinity fit together in one substance. Just as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit cannot ever be separated apart, so the Eternal Word proclaimed in Scripture and Tradition, as taught infallibly by the Holy Spirit through the Christ’s only Church, cannot be separated. But, before we can even begin to examine Saint Thomas’ writings, we must first understand Saint Thomas’ educational and historical background.
Saint Thomas began his formal studies at Montecassino in Italy. The education he received there was a form of scholastic, classical curriculum that focused on the trivium and the quadrivium. So Saint Thomas was well versed in logic, rhetoric, grammar, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, which he continued to study when he was later, sent to Naples, Italy. It was however in Paris and Cologne where he received his formal theological education. It is here that we can find the roots of his theological positions. Peter Lombard’s work titled the Sentences, were essentially the Summa Theologiae before there was a Summa Theologiae. Saint Thomas studied Peter Lombard, and was very familiar with the scholar’s theological works. In fact, Saint Thomas composed a commentary on his work titled ‘The Sentences’, which if left unabridged would span a 6000 page volume work in today's average book format. Lombard was a foundation from which Saint Thomas built upon, yet he was never afraid to modify or change directions in his own theological work. Saint Thomas would later use the works of Lombard to defend Catholic teaching for Pope Urban IV against the errors of the East. Saint Thomas was also a great scholar in Patristics to which he frequently referred, to substantiate some of his Biblical interpretations. Despite his appreciation and study of the Fathers, he was in many ways an innovator in regards to Scriptural scholarship. What many people today however may not understand is the focus of studies among the universities of his time. The theological focus of the medieval universities of Saint Thomas’ time, were devoted primarily to Biblical studies. Saint Thomas, being a professor twice at Paris, was no exception, and his theological work is for the most part, entirely focused on Biblical scholarship. Much of his work however was not composed as a complete defense to Catholic doctrine in a strict sense, it was developed in a large part to examine and cultivate the literal sense of Scripture. We must note that the word literal here is not synonymous with today's fundamentalist definition. We will touch on that later in this work.
There are also a few basic historical facts that we should remember when reading Saint Thomas. Although Aristotelian philosophy had already influenced great theologians like St. Albert, one of Thomas' teachers, we should remember that Saint Thomas was one of the first Latin theologians of the middle ages to really expound upon and integrate the sound aspects of Aristotelian philosophy with theology. It influenced how he viewed Sacred Scripture, and it developed in him a profound leaning towards the sufficiency of the literal sense of the Scriptures, which almost seems contrary to many of the Church Fathers who came before him, who tended to emphasize the spiritual senses over the literal. Although there were theologians such as Saint Augustine who wrote about understanding Scripture in the literal sense (De Doctrina Christiana), none emphasized the sufficiency of the literal sense as Saint Thomas. Catholic theologian Matthew Lamb writes, “St. Thomas' unqualified adoption of the Aristotelian doctrine concerning the dependence of the human mind on the imagination threw a new light on the importance of the literal sense of Scripture.” (1. Lamb) This difference was largely due to the influence of Platonic philosophy on the earlier theologians that came before Saint Thomas. Although Saint Thomas fully accepted the tradition held before him by the Fathers, his theology developed aided by the influence of Aristotle, though not disconnected with Platonic thought, which was brought about primarily through his studies on St. Augustine. Saint Thomas also further leaned on the literal sense of Scripture to combat heresies of the day such as the Cathar heresy, who developed their heresies by rendering a false “spiritual” sense in place of the literal. It was Saint Thomas’ position that the literal sense of Scripture was the only sense on which strict theological arguments should be based on in regards to Scripture itself, hence we see him address this issue in his Summa Theologiae, “Consequently Holy Scripture sets up no confusion, since all meanings are based on one, namely, the literal sense. From this alone can arguments be drawn, and not, as St. Augustine mentions in his letter to Vincent the Donatist, from whatever is said according to allegory. Nor is anything lost from Sacred Scripture on this account, for nothing that is necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not openly conveyed by the literal sense elsewhere. (Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 1, Article 10) Saint Thomas here clearly states his opinion as to how Scripture teaches matters necessary to the faith. He proposes that when Scripture teaches something necessary to the faith, it does so in the literal sense. This type of Scriptural interpretation was developed by Saint Thomas and it influenced much of his work.
It must be understood that Saint Thomas never separated the Scriptures from the Tradition of the Church. He demonstrates his belief in the primacy of the Church of Rome, which was founded upon Saint Peter. "This is as if He said: "They shall make war against thee, but they shall not overcome thee." And thus it is that only the Church of Peter was always firm in faith. On the contrary, in other parts of the world there is either no faith at all or faith mixed with many errors. The Church of Peter flourishes in faith and is free from error. This, however, is not to be wondered at, for the Lord has said to Peter: "But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not; and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren." (Catechism of Thomas Aquinas, 9th article) Throughout his career he also researched the writings of the Church Fathers to arrive at proper Biblical interpretations of Scripture. It is a fact that Urban IV requested him to compose a gloss on the four gospels, in which St. Thomas referred back to the original Greek sources to compose. It is a topic of debate as to how well versed St. Thomas was in Greek, but it is apparent that he at least possessed some understanding of the language. It is also well known that he referred to other Greek scholars of his day, to which he used their translations of the Greek Father's original texts to compose much of his work . Most people are familiar with his gloss often titled “the Catena Aurea.” In it he cites 22 Latin Fathers and 57 Greek Fathers all of which were cited to support the Church’s traditional interpretation of the Scriptures regarding proper doctrinal teaching. Although Saint Thomas is often accused of being a Latin minded theologian, the Eastern Church had a great influence on his theological writings.
It must be noted that although much of Saint Thomas’ work was devoted entirely to Scripture, when needed however, he does occasionally demonstrate the necessity to appeal to Tradition. Saint Thomas does this when he defends the Catholic Church for Pope Urban IV against the schismatic Church of the East. In his university setting however, we rarely see Saint Thomas engage in this type of apologetic. His university work falls in line with the Biblical studies, which were the point of theological focus of the time. Nevertheless, Saint Thomas does often speak of the Scriptures as being the “rule of faith”, and when Saint Thomas speaks of the sufficiency of Scripture as a rule of faith, it must be understood that he does not mean Scripture alone, as a Protestant would much later define it. It means the Word of God as expressed in the Written Word and the Oral Kerygma of the Church, within the structure of the Church of Rome headed by the Roman Pontiff. It appears that Thomas uses these authorities almost interchangeable when referring to Sacra Doctrina. James A. Weisheipl, O.P. Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies explains further, “This sola scriptura of which St. Thomas speaks is far different from the sola scriptura (“only the Bible”) of the Reformers. This battle cry was made famous by Luther, who insisted that what is not contained in the Bible is not “of faith.” But Luther and Thomas (or any other medieval theologian) meant two different things by the word Bible, or Sacred Scriptures. For Luther and the Reformers the Bible was thought of as a finished, edited, and (by then) printed collection, while Thomas and the medieval theologians meant the Sacred Word together with the gloss of the Fathers, liturgy, and the living Church.” (James A. Weisheipl, O.P. ,Magi Books, Inc., Albany, N.Y.) The final point of Dr. Weishepl is very crucial to understanding these texts of Saint Thomas. The primary point that must not be forgotten is that St. Thomas did not divorce the living Church, the tradition of the Church Fathers or the integration of the Scriptures in liturgy from the Scriptures themselves as a rule of faith. That living element is what is referred to as Sacred Tradition. This puts Saint Thomas in good company with modern Catholic theologians such as Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict XVI writes the following on Tradition, “Tradition is indeed never a simple and anonymous handing on of teaching, but is linked to a person, is a living word, that has its concrete reality in faith.” (7. Benedict XVI) This living element, rooted firmly in faith and Tradition cannot be separated from Thomas' view of Scripture. Such terms that are used today in modern Protestant works such as “material sufficiency”, “formal sufficiency” and the like, have no place in the thought of the Angelic Doctor. To force these types of definitions upon his writings and thought would be an anachronistic error of the gravest proportion.
In the beginning of the Summa Theologiae St. Thomas opens with how he views Sacred Doctrine, or Sacra Doctrina. There is more than meets the eye when it comes to this term in the mind of Saint Thomas. The term at face value appears to mean nothing more than Sacred Doctrine. Protestants have tried to make this term synonymous with Sacred Scripture, but this is not at all what the author intended to communicate. Sacra Doctrina was defined and understood to mean sacred instruction, most often in the active sense, but not limited to the active sense. We also cannot forget that sacred doctrine, was a doctrine that was preached or learned as science. For Thomas the science of Sacra Doctrina was not limited to Sacred Scripture, but the receiving of God's entire revelation through His revealed Word, as well as what was revealed in nature. Article Two of the Summa Theologiae gives us some clarification. For Thomas the doctrina was the foundation of everything he would build the Summa upon. In his reply to objection two, regarding whether Sacra Doctrina is indeed a science he writes, “Individual facts are treated of in sacred doctrine, not because it is concerned with them principally, but they are introduced rather both as examples to be followed in our lives (as in moral sciences) and in order to establish the authority of those men through whom the divine revelation, on which this sacred scripture or doctrine is based, has come down to us.” Here he reveals a few important facts. First he reveals that Sacra Doctrina is founded upon the authority of the men, the apostles, and that all doctrina and scripture is handed on by this authority. It is this living foundation that all doctrina rests upon, and it is this living foundation which the doctrina is handed on to us including Sacra Scriptura. In other words, St. Thomas here in the opening of his Summa is saying that all doctrina is built upon the foundation and authority of the apostles, not Scripture alone. He clearly points out that all doctrine falls under the authority of the apostles and he states that Scripture is also founded upon that authority. This foundation that St. Thomas lays down is critical to understand if we are to make any sense out of the rest of the Summa. It must be noted that if one does not understand the opening articles of the Summa, one will never understand the rest of its contents. St. Thomas, as with all the scholars of his time, do not repeat themselves often, and if you miss important points as they are set up in the progression of the Summa, you will not be able to grasp what the author intends to communicate later, no matter how well you read English, or how great of a Latin scholar you are. For Thomas Scripture and Doctrina were part of the revealed revelation of God, which is based upon Christ and the authority of the apostles, which St. Thomas clearly states has been handed down through the ages by the Church.
We must note that for Saint Thomas there is no distinction between Scripture and doctrine per se. For him doctrina and scriptura were derivative of the same source of all divine revelation, which is God. (9 Baglow) The distinction between forms of revelation did not need to be made in Thomas's time as would later have to be done after the Protestant revolt. The Protesters of the 16th century actively sought to separate Scripture from its unitive bond with all divine revelation. This is not to say that there are no examples of Church Fathers writing about Tradition, and we do find Saint Thomas a couple of times indeed appealing to Tradition. But it is safe to say that it was not a point of focus for Saint Thomas in the theological works of his time. His works were written for the audience of his time, not ours. This is often a mistake people make in reading into the Fathers of the Church. They often mistake the ancient writers as writing for the controversies of the modern day, removed centuries from the writers time. It is this mentality that has sought to apply the Protestant definition of Sola Scriptura to the Angelic Doctor.
One other side note that we should address before we go into Saint Thomas' actual writings, is the fact that Saint Thomas was also a monastic at heart. He spent many years with the Benedictines in his early years, later becoming a professed Dominican. He was often praised by many of his piers for his extraordinary piety, knowledge and preaching. The hours he did not spend writing and dictating writings to his secretaries, he spent in prayer. We must be careful not to divorce the spiritual aspects of Saint Thomas from his theological works. The influence of Thomas regarding liturgical devotion is also well known, and many scholars credit St. Thomas with the church wide instigation of the Feast of Corpus Christie, as well as the prayers that are used in worship of the Blessed Sacrament today. For Thomas, the spiritual life and close connection to God was of the utmost importance in his theological writings.
No study of Aquinas would be complete without noting his influence on the papacy, which is well known. His relations with Pope Urban IV and Pope Gregory X are well documented. Pope Urban IV requested him to write a defense of the Latin church and Pope Gregory X was so impressed with Saint Thomas that he personally requested him to attend the deliberations at Lyons in 1274. But as we know, before Saint Thomas could finish his trip to Lyons, he received his eternal reward with the Cistercian monks at Fossa Nuova. It is interesting to note some of his final words in his last hours, for it summarizes his allegiance to the Holy See, and puts to rest any doubt as to his acknowledgment of the Catholic Church's authority. Near the point of his death, he submitted all of his writings to the authority of Holy Mother Church. “Neither do I wish to be obstinate in my opinions, but if I have written anything erroneous concerning this sacrament or other matters, I submit all to the judgment and correction of the Holy Roman Church, in whose obedience I now pass from this life.” It is with his final words that we begin our examination of his written work.
The Writings of Saint Thomas.
In order to examine Saint Thomas’ texts regarding Sacred Scripture, we must first stop and look at his Summa Theologiae. Since this is the work most often cited by modern day apologists, we must examine the Saint’s intention behind the Summa. If we fail to understand his starting premise for this work, there is a high risk of taking his work out of the original context in which it was written. Father Chenu, O.P. warns those who study the Summa, “Undoubtedly in the history of Thomism the Summa Theologica has monopolized all the attention... But it is precisely here that a grave problem arises, and the first condition for understanding and solving it is not to forget that the Summa is planted in the soil of the Scriptures, not merely by some species of devotion which gives its rational systematization a pious aspect, but because of the very law of its genesis. The university education of the thirteenth century will produce disputations and Summae only within the framework of Scriptural teaching.” (1 Lamb) This fact is an important one to remember. To dismiss the educational system that Saint Thomas was a product of, risks missing his theological focus, which was primarily Sacred Scripture. This is why we see such a strong focus on Scripture throughout his Summa. In fact, at times it appears as if nothing else exists but the Scriptures to Saint Thomas. Theologian and scholar Father Matthew Lamb also warns, “When St. Thomas' more systematic works, such as the Summa Theologiae, are studied in isolation from the scriptural matrix they were meant to supplement, misunderstandings are inevitable.” It is very apparent that many Protestant apologists have fallen into these misunderstandings.
A first mistake people often make in reading the Summa Theologiae i s that they treat it as a modern theological encyclopedia. Instead of reading the text as it was intended to be read, from the beginning to end, people open up the index and simply look for the topic they are interested in. This poses a serious problem. As they say, an error in the beginning is an error indeed! Saint Thomas' writings do not afford us the luxury of repetitive summary that modern publications often use. Once Saint Thomas has set up an important point, he often makes no mention of it again, and simply builds upon that point throughout the work. This happens many times throughout the Summa. So one cannot go into the Summa and simply start cutting out and reading passages without having first understood core principals of theology that Saint Thomas laid out in earlier parts of the work. It is also important to note that each question is often followed by several articles relating to that question. All the citations must be read to fully understand what Saint Thomas' is addressing in that particular question, as well as the final conclusion that he states.
There are many passages in the Summa to which Protestants make improper reference to, in which Saint Thomas is falsely hailed as if he is almost a supporter of Sola Scriptura. For instance, Protestant William Webster attempts to build a fallacious case against the Catholic Church by ignorantly attempting to frame Saint Thomas in a position contrary to current Catholic teaching, “The first was sola Scriptura in which the fathers viewed Scripture as both materially and formally sufficient. It was materially sufficient in that it was the only source of doctrine and truth and the ultimate authority in all doctrinal controversies. It was necessary that every teaching of the Church as it related to doctrine be proven from Scripture. It was necessary that every teaching of the Church as it related to doctrine be proven from Scripture. Thomas Aquinas articulated this patristic view when he stated that canonical Scripture alone is the rule of faith. Additionally, they taught that the essential truths of Scripture were perspicuous, that is, that they were clearly revealed in Scripture, so that, by the enablement of the Holy Spirit alone an individual could come to an understanding of the fundamental truths of salvation” (8.Webster) It appears that Mr. Webster does not understand the theological background to Saint Thomas’ writings, nor does it appear that he has ventured out very far in investigating the background and history surrounding Saint Thomas' writings. To interpret Saint Thomas in this manner misses the main point of his work, and ultimately it shows a grave misunderstanding of Catholic teaching regarding the Scriptures. It was Saint Thomas intention as a university scholar to exhaust Sacred Scripture for every doctrine or teaching that could be implied from the literal text. Even when Saint Thomas could not explicitly find a text in Scripture to support an argument, he used philosophical reasoning to get him to where he wanted to go with Scripture. For instance Saint Thomas argues for the two wills of Christ based on Scripture, yet he has to use logic and philosophy to arrive at his interpretation, because the Scripture passages he uses are not explicitly clear. He demonstrates that the root of Monothelism was in the error of their logic, not in the use of Scripture. For Saint Thomas, Scripture was not clear in this instance, only in using his tools of philosophy, logic and Patristic interpretation within the living Church, but Scripture standing on its own does not give us the answer. (Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 4, Question 26)
Saint Thomas is often misinterpreted, and every time he makes reference to the use of Scripture for proving a doctrine or teaching of the Church, he is often hailed as binding himself to “Scripture Alone.” Yet, there are many times when he is addressing an entirely different topic altogether. For instance, the following text has been quoted by many Protestants to imply that Saint Thomas held Scripture as the only rule of faith, and the only source of necessary doctrine. “It should be noted that though many might write concerning Catholic truth, there is this difference that those who wrote the canonical Scripture, the Evangelists and Apostles, and others of this kind, so constantly assert it that they leave no room for doubt. That is his meaning when he says ‘we know his testimony is true.’ Galatians 1:9, “If anyone preach a gospel to you other than that which you have received, let him be anathema!” The reason is that only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith. Others however so wrote of the truth that they should not be believed save insofar as they say true things.” If we look at the context of this text, Saint Thomas is clearly holding up the Church’s accepted canonical books of Scripture against those not accepted by the Church, hence he says that only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith. It is a fact that Saint Thomas and the Dominicans were on the frontline in the battle against many heresies including the Cathar heresy, in which the false texts such as the Gospel of the Secret Supper and The Book of the Two Principles were presented as authentic Scripture to spread their heresies. Here Saint Thomas is clearly not alluding that Scripture stands on its own per se, but he asserts that only canonical Scripture can convey the true gospel, or be used as a measure of faith. This is not in any opposition to current Catholic thought.
This interpretation is shared by several recognized Catholic scholars including Fr. Matthew Lamb. He writes in reference to this passage, “This does not imply that St. Thomas advocated sola scriptura; he could not abstract the Book from its living environment within ecclesial tradition.” This fact can be proven by other texts in the Summa itself which clearly make reference to Church Tradition. For instance, in the Summa Theologica, Saint Thomas clearly states the fact that some things that are essential to the faith concerning the Sacraments are not found in Sacred Scripture, “But those things that are essential to the sacrament, are instituted by Christ Himself, Who is God and man. And though they are not all handed down by the Scriptures, yet the Church holds them from the intimate tradition of the apostles, according to the saying of the Apostle (1 Corinthians 11:34): "The rest I will set in order when I come."(Summa Theologica III, Question 64, article 2) There are several other texts we can cite from Aquinas that affirm his adherence to Sacred Tradition. Another example regarding the use of sacred images is taken once again from the Summa, "The Apostles, led by the inward instinct of the Holy Ghost, handed down to the churches certain instructions which they did not put in writing, but which have been ordained, in accordance with the observance of the Church as practiced by the faithful as time went on. Wherefore the Apostle says (2 Thessalonians 2:14): "Stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word"--that is by word of mouth--"or by our epistle"--that is by word put into writing. Among these traditions is the worship of Christ's image. Wherefore it is said that Blessed Luke painted the image of Christ, which is in Rome." (Summa Theologica III, Question 25, Article3 ) Saint Thomas here holds up the Church's doctrinal teaching by the use of Sacred Tradition, and not Sacred Scripture in this particular case. There are some who try to make this statement apply only to church practice and have claimed that it is not doctrinal in nature. This interpretation however, is well refuted by anyone who is at all familiar with the iconoclastic controversy of the eighth century. The iconoclastic controversy was one of the gravest and most bitter theological disputes of the first millennium of the entire Eastern Church. So much so that the entire ecumenical Church would condemn iconoclasm with the threat of the anathema. So we clearly see an appeal by Thomas outside of Scripture to support an argument for a doctrinal teaching of the Church.
There are other passages of Saint Thomas that we must examine concerning statements that refer to the Scriptures as being “The rule of faith.” For example we see St. Thomas often appeal to Sacred Scripture as a rule of faith to defend the Church's teachings. In the Summa Theologica Saint Thomas makes an affirmation of Scripture as being the rule of faith to which nothing could be added or subtracted.
“Objection 1. It would seem that it is unsuitable for the articles of faith to be embodied in a symbol. Because Holy Writ is the rule of faith, to which no addition or subtraction can lawfully be made, since it is written (Deuteronomy 4:2): "You shall not add to the word that I speak to you, neither shall you take away from it." Therefore it was unlawful to make a symbol as a rule of faith, after the HolyWrit had once been published.
Reply to Objection 1. The truth of faith is contained in Holy Writ, diffusely, under various modes of expression, and sometimes obscurely, so that, in order to gather the truth of faith from Holy Writ, one needs long study and practice, which are unattainable by all those who require to know the truth of faith, many of whom have no time for study, being busy with other affairs. And so it was necessary to gather together a clear summary from the sayings of Holy Writ, to be proposed to the belief of all. This indeed was no addition to Holy Writ, but something taken from it. (Summa Theologica, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 1, Article 9)
There is a nothing here in this passage that would align Saint Thomas in opposition to current Catholic dogmatic teaching. In fact, the Catholic Church has always held up Sacred Scripture as a rule of faith to which nothing can contradict. Where the error lies is the presuppositional mentality that Protestants read this passage with. It is only with the dawn of the Protestant Revolt that the unity of Scripture, Oral Tradition and the Church became a real point of theological controversy. Let me explain. With the dawn of the Protestant heresy, the Church had to reiterate the need for proper Biblical exegesis within Church Tradition. Although Saint Thomas had problems in his day with heretical interpretations, there was not an entire movement dedicated to eliminating or divorcing the living Tradition and authority of the Church from Sacred Scripture. That heresy really developed on a wide scale with the Revolt. What Saint Thomas wrote in this passage was no different than what Pope Benedict XVI has written in the modern age in reference to Scripture as being the rule of faith. In fact Pope Benedict XVI wrote to the Biblical Commision in Rome, in 2009, the following concerning Sacred Scripture. "Therefore since all that the inspired authors or hagiographers state is to be considered as said by the Holy Spirit, the invisible and transcendent Author, it must consequently be acknowledged that “the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures” (Pope Benedict XVI addressing the members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on April 23, 2009) It must be noted that Pope Benedict XVI is well versed in Thomism, and he expresses Saint Thomas' thoughts in much of his theological work. Saint Thomas was no more of a “Sola Scripturist” than our current Pontiff. It is a Catholic theological practice to measure our faith by Sacred Scripture, and Catholic teaching tells us that nothing can oppose the Scriptures. Saint Thomas expressed this theological premise many times in his writings, yet never to the exclusion or divorcing of the living apostolic Tradition from which they proceeded from. Pope Benedict XVI said in 2008, "When exegesis—critical analysis or interpretation—does not appeal to theology or when Scripture is not the soul of theology or theology is not rooted in the Scriptures, then there is a problem with the way sacred writings are being interpreted," (Pope Benedict XVI Oct. 14 2008.) It is with the same mentality that Saint Thomas comes to see the root of all theology, that is the root of Sacred Scripture. Although this text from St. Thomas appears to be exciting for Protestants in need of an ancient example of their heretical “Sola” doctrine; upon close examination it is not supported by the Angelic Doctor.
Let us now return to the text cited regarding Scripture as the rule of faith. There is a word here that seems to be overlooked or misinterpreted. What does Saint Thomas mean when he uses the word “symbol?” The Latin word is symbolum, and it simply means in this particular case, Creed, or article of faith. It does not refer to every essential doctrine of the Church, as some Protestant apologists have incorrectly stated. We could however argue that all essential doctrine lies in some fashion within the core principals of the Creed, but not every explicit doctrine of the Church is expressed in an explicit material fashion. Saint Thomas never implies that symbol means all sacra doctrina, or every teaching of the Church. He is simply saying that Creeds, like that of the Nicaean Creed, should not be composed without the root of Sacred Scripture, nothing more. Saint Thomas was simply stating that in the symbolum, or in this specific case, in the Nicaean Creed, there was nothing contained in it in principal, that was an addition to Sacred Scripture itself. I don't think any modern Catholic theologian would disagree.
Saint Thomas was primarily a Scripture scholar, and it is no surprise that he exhibits such a fine focus of examining them in his theological works, including the Summa Theologiae. Although the Summa Theologiae is the “go to” text for many of today’s apologists, his works directly concerning the Scriptures are just as relevant as to how Saint Thomas viewed the role of Sacred Scripture. His Scripture commentaries, catechism and lectures are often overlooked. Although Saint Thomas held that most passages of Scripture had a literal interpretation, he often argued for two or more literal interpretations of Scriptural passages, often times never making a definitive decision as to their literal meaning. It is quite apparent that he often opted to appeal to the Church’s traditional interpretations based on the Fathers who preceded him. It must be understood that much of Saint Thomas’s work was to use Scripture to settle on a literal sense of the text, rather than to probe for spiritual senses. In an effort to describe Aquinas’ methods Scholar Nicholas M. Healy writes, “They probed the text of Scripture just as intently as the monks, but not for the spiritual meanings lying below the literal sense that would enhance one’s religious experience. Rather, the aim was to use reason and logic to raise difficulties and questions that, once resolved, would deepen understanding of the text.” So we must understand that Saint Thomas’ definition of the literal sense is not one in the same that modern exegetes understand to be the literal sense. Saint Thomas is not bound by the text itself in regards to historical or scientific explanations. He understands that the literal sense is to determine the original intent of the author. For example, Healy gives an example of how Aquinas interpreted the passage of Genesis 1:6, where a body of water surrounding the firmament is interpreted to mean a formless matter or transparent body. Aquinas held that God could use words in Scripture to have more than one meaning, even in the literal sense. Finally it must be noted that Saint Thomas did not limit himself to the literal sense of Scripture. Father Matthew Lamb writes, “Not that the traditional doctrine of the four senses was ever abandoned - far from it. He gave them a precise and transparent definition:
“1) The literal or historical sense: That intended by the sacred author, the realities he signified through the words of Scripture. Since God not only can adapt words to convey meaning but also, by his providence, transmit meaning in the very events of life, the realities narrated in the Bible can in turn signify a further spiritual reality. Hence the spiritual senses:
2) The allegorical or typical sense: The realities of the Old Testament signify those of the New, Christ and his Church.
3) The moral or tropological sense: The events of Christ's life, and those who prefigured him, signify what Christians should do, how they should live.
4) The anagogical or eschatological sense: The New Testament realities signify those of the kingdom that is to come.” (1 Lamb)
There are some telling methods that Saint Thomas used to prove his interpretations of Sacred Scripture, which are contrary to the positions of Protestants who cradle Saint Thomas as almost being one of their own. For instance, there are times in which Saint Thomas uses declarations made by the Church in dogmatic statements, which are not found in Scripture, to arrive at proper Scriptural interpretations. More importantly, he never sees an opposing line concerning divine authority between the Scriptures or the Church. For him the authority of the Church to bind and interpret a particular verse or passage of Scripture was synonymous with the authority of Scripture itself. Saint Thomas makes use of the Nicene Creed to make light of the authority of the apostles in their apostolic succession, and their ability to bind and loose sins through the sacraments, "By these seven Sacraments we receive the remission of sins, and so in the Creed there follows immediately: "the forgiveness of sins." The power was given to the Apostles to forgive sins. We must believe that the ministers of the Church receive this power from the Apostles; and the Apostles received it from Christ; and thus the priests have the power of binding and loosing. Moreover, we believe that there is the full power of forgiving sins in the Church, although it operates from the highest to the lowest, i.e., from the Pope down through the prelates. "(Catechism of Thomas Aquinas, 10th article)
It is with definite assurance that Saint Thomas looked to Living Tradition to shed light upon the Sacred Scriptures as well as to settle upon Church doctrine. It is also important to recognize that Saint Thomas understood the Biblical root from which the Nicene Creed was formed from. But for him, the Church, Tradition and Scripture were tightly wound together, and he viewed them ultimately to be inseparable. This is further emphasized in the Summa, "On the other hand faith adheres to all the articles of faith by reason of one mean, viz. on account of the First Truth proposed to us in Scriptures, according to the teaching of the Church who has the right understanding of them. Hence whoever abandons this mean is altogether lacking in faith." (Summa Theologica II, Question 5, Article 2) There is an understanding that is expressed by Saint Thomas that holds Scripture up as being a rule to measure the “faith” with. But the rule of Scripture is not based solely upon the authority of Scripture alone, but with the Church that was able to recognize, uphold and interpret them. If we look to Catholic teaching regarding the authority of the Church, we see that it does not teach that the Church is essentially “above” the Scriptures in authority. They both share in the very same authority that the Scriptures themselves hold, since God's Word is only recognized properly within the Church Body that Christ himself gave us, to which he promised hell itself would not overcome. For Saint Thomas, there was no Church other than the Roman Catholic Church, which could recognize divine revelation itself and interpret it correctly. This includes of course the recognition and interpretation of Sacra Scriptura.
We can summarize the Catholic view as being similar to a constitution or rule of law we would see today in our court system. Although the constitution is held up as a rule to be followed, the cases and legal decisions based on the tradition of past court cases cannot be ignored to determine a proper interpretation. Those cases sometimes include content that is not explicitly defined in law books or the constitution. It is much the same with Scripture. It is a rule to be followed, to which the faith must conform to, and cannot oppose. It is within that framework that much of the Word of God is found and explicitly expressed. There are however times when Scripture itself appeals to something other than itself for the assurance of infallible interpretation , theological clarity and revelation not found within itself. (2 Thessalonians) Saint Thomas himself appealed outside of Scripture itself to uphold the Church's orthodox understanding and doctrine pertaining to the use of sacred images within the Christian faith. I noted this already in my earlier text.
There is no question that Saint Thomas devoted a majority of his work to the study of Sacred Scripture. He also viewed it as a primary tool for refuting heresy as well as using it to explain essential teachings of the faith. It makes perfect sense to use the Scriptures to teach and profess essential teachings if they are so contained in them. It seems that Saint Thomas understood that Scripture was part of the same deposit of Divine Revelation as Oral Tradition, and when the Scriptures clearly taught an essential doctrine, there was no need to appeal to anything other than Scripture. However, there are examples of Saint Thomas teaching directly from Sacred Tradition as defined by the Church in her Councils to refute heresies. Let us return to Pope Urban IV. Pope Urban IV requested Saint Thomas to write up a series of answers to theological disputes between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The work is known as Opusculum contra errores Graecorum. In this work we clearly see Saint Thomas appealing to the Fourth Lateran Council to arrive at a correct understanding of the Son’s nature and essence in relation to the Holy Spirit. Saint Thomas examines the early Fathers in relation to the Ecumenical Councils and arrives at the proper understanding. “Athanasius likewise asserts in his letter to Serapion that the divine essence in the Holy Spirit is spirated. He says: “The Holy Spirit is the true and natural image of the Son in virtue of the essence wholly spirated into him by the same.” This manner of speaking, however, is highly misleading, and at the [Fourth] Lateran Council the teaching of Joachim, who presumptuously defended it against Master Peter Lombard, was condemned.” (Opusculum contra errores Graecorum, Chapter Four) What is also telling is that the Fourth Lateran Council, which is cited by Saint Thomas in this work, reaffirmed doctrinal teachings pertaining to the papacy, the Holy Trinity and Transubstantiation. Binding laws were also laid down by the Council pertaining to yearly confession and communion. Saint Thomas was well aware of the authority of the Pope and Church Councils, and he appealed to this authority to defend the teaching of the Church as well as implement its disciplinary decisions regarding the practice of faith. It is quite clear that Saint Thomas understood that Scripture alone could not defend itself from being misinterpreted by those outside the Church.
Finally, it is clear to see how Saint Thomas harmonized Sacred Tradition with Sacred Scripture in reference to defending the papacy for example. Saint Thomas clearly appeals to Sacred Tradition as defined by the Councils to defend the papacy. Here he clearly cites both Tradition and Scripture to substantiate his claim. It is important to quote this text at length.
“The error of those who say that the Vicar of Christ, the Pontiff of the Roman Church, does not have a primacy over the universal Church is similar to the error of those who say that the Holy Spirit does not proceed from the Son. For Christ himself, the Son of God, consecrates and marks her as his own with the Holy Spirit, as it were with his own character and seal, as the authorities already cited make abundantly clear. And in like manner the Vicar of Christ by his primacy and foresight as a faithful servant keeps the Church Universal subject to Christ. It must, then, be shown from texts of the aforesaid Greek Doctors that the Vicar of Christ holds the fullness of power over the whole Church of Christ. Now, that the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ, is the first and greatest of all the bishops, is expressly stated in the canon of the Council which reads: “According to the Scriptures and definition of the canon we venerate the most holy bishop of old Rome as the first and greatest of all the bishops.” This, moreover, accords well with Sacred Scripture, which both in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. Matt. 16:18; John 21:17; Acts 1: 15-16, 2:14, 15:17) assigns first place among the Apostles to Peter. Hence, Chyrsostom commenting on the text of Matthew 8: 1: The disciples came to Jesus and asked, who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, says: “For they had created in their minds a human stumbling block, which they could no longer keep to themselves; nor did they control their hearts’ pride, because they saw that Peter was preferred to them and was given a more honorable place… It is also shown that the Vicar of Christ has universal jurisdiction over the entire Church of Christ. For it is recorded of the Council of Chalcedon how the whole synod acclaimed Pope Leo: “Long live Leo, the most holy, apostolic, and ecumenical, that is, universal patriarch…It is also established from the texts of the aforesaid Doctors that the Roman Pontiff possesses a fullness of power in the Church. For Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, says in his Thesaurus: “As Christ coming forth from Israel as leader and sceptre of the Church of the Gentiles was granted by the Father the fullest power over every principality and power and whatever is that all might bend the knee to him, so he entrusted most fully the fullest power to Peter and his successors…It is also shown that Peter is the Vicar of Christ and the Roman Pontiff is Peter’s successor enjoying the same power conferred on Peter by Christ. For the canon of the Council of Chalcedon says: “If any bishop is sentenced as guilty of infamy, he is free to appeal the sentence to the blessed bishop of old Rome, whom we have as Peter the rock of refuge, and to him alone, in the place of God, with unlimited power, is granted the authority to hear the appeal of a bishop accused of infamy in virtue of the keys given him by the Lord.” And further on: “And whatever has been decreed by him is to be held as from the vicar of the apostolic throne.” (Opusculum contra errores Graecorum, Chapters 32, 33, 34 and 35)
In summary we can see a clear image of what Saint Thomas believed in reference to Sacra Scriptura, Sacra Traditionem, Sacra Doctrina and how they functioned within the Church. In the examples I provided, we can see that he not only relied on Sacred Scripture alone, but he held the Council of Chalcedon up as an authority equal to Scripture to define the doctrinal jurisdiction of the papacy. Yes, much of his writing says little about teaching derived outside of Scripture, but that is because St. Thomas was very much a product of his own time in regards to his theological focus. Saint Thomas certainly had a high regard for Sacred Scripture, and he focused much of his theological work to plumbing its depths in the university. He even made it a point of his studies to exhaust Scripture for everything it could reveal concerning doctrine. It is for this reason that we see little reference made to Tradition in his work, while Sacred Scripture takes center stage. Despite this fact, we can still see clearly that his adherence to papal authority, apostolic Tradition, the writings of the Fathers, and Church Councils, that Saint Thomas was very much a Catholic in his formal theology. It is therefore an untenable argument for Protestant apologists to infer upon him any such characterizations that would define the great Angelic Doctor with any theological position remotely similar to the Protestant heresy of Sola Scriptura. It is simply intellectually dishonest to do so.
1. Lamb, Matthew L., trans. Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. Aquinas Scripture Commentaries, 2. Albany: Magi Books, 1966.
2. Weinandy, Thomas G. Aquinas on Scripture. T&T Clark International, 2005
3. Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica
4. Aquinas, Thomas. Catechism of Thomas Aquinas
5. Aquinas, Thomas. Opusculum contra errores Graecorum
6. James A. Weisheipl, O.P. ,Magi Books, Inc., Albany, N.Y. 1998
7. Benedict XVI, God's Word, Ignatius Press
8. Webster, William, A Repudiation of the Patristic Concept of Tradition
9. Baglow, Chrostopher, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Doctrine in St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas on Doctrine T&T Clark