Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Apostle, the Philosopher, and Friar Thomas: The Place of Aristotle in Thomas Aquinas's Dominican Vocation

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

The Apostle, the Philosopher, and Friar Thomas: The Place of Aristotle in Thomas Aquinas's Dominican Vocation

Article excerpt


What is the relationship between Christian faith and philosophy? Can there be such a thing as a "Christian philosophy," or is philosophy by its nature independent of faith? This question offides et ratio is at the heart of current debates. For example, what role does Christian doctrine play in public policy: is there a Christian politics, a Christian economics, a Christian political philosophy? (1) In the other direction, what role does philosophy play in Christian formation and theology: can non-Christian philosophy help us understand our faith?

These are not easy questions to answer. The teachings of the Second Vatican Council, Pope St. John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI all involve answers to the Christian philosophy question. But before Vatican II, the question was the subject of a fierce debate among great Catholic thinkers in France in the 1930s. (2) A recent book, Gregory Sadler's Reason Fulfilled by Revelation: The 1930s Christian Philosophy Debates in France, collects the various positions of the debate--and shows us how complicated it was. These philosophers were thinking both about their current situation and about St. Thomas Aquinas. How did he see the relationship between faith and philosophy? How should we?

The positions in the 1930s were subtle and difficult. Some said faith "generates" a new philosophy by providing concepts it would never find on its own: before the Bible taught about Creation, there was little philosophical reflection on existence. But others, generating new philosophical concepts, say reason works without faith, but faith gives it a new context, a new set of questions, a Christian "state." And a third answer takes a radically opposite position to the first, arguing that "Christian philosophy" is a contradiction in terms: reason is reason, philosophy is philosophy, whether Christian or not. (3) One author even said, "Medieval philosophy has nearly always suffered from its too close contact with theology," and, "Today still, many Catholic philosophers, deformed by theology, do not succeed in imposing on themselves a strictly philosophical method." (4) All three of these positions, and many more subtle ones, make good points. (5)

The 1930s debate tried to answer the question for today by looking back to St. Thomas Aquinas. This article will do the same thing. But in light of eighty years of further historical scholarship, this essay will examine the question of Christian philosophy from a different angle: in light of his Dominican vocation. I will first examine Thomas's choice of his vocation; then the intellectual demands of that vocation, both as the Order understood them and as Thomas did; and I shall thus reexamine his use of Aristotle. We shall find, on one hand, that Thomas uses Aristotle only in the service of biblical theology; and on the other hand, that it is important to Thomas that his philosophical servant be the non-Christian Aristotle.

Approaching from the angle of Thomas's Dominican vocation gives us a more personal approach to the question of Christian philosophy. First, this approach will yield an answer more in line with the moderate or even anti-Christian-philosophy authors of the 1930s. Second, by approaching the question historically rather than abstractly, through personal vocation rather than pure reason, we can take the polemical edge off the discussion. We can see how different vocations might approach the Christian-philosophy question differently, and we can find a more concrete way to think through the implications of our answers.

Part One: Friar Thomas


Causa finalis aliarum causarum causa. Though many fine works have examined Thomas's particular use of sources, here my aim is to establish his goal. What was Thomas trying to accomplish?

A first datum in establishing Thomas's goal is his fervent dedication to writing commentaries on Aristotle. …

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