Analyzing Aquinas I: The History

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It is often asserted by the New Atheists that there is no evidence for the existence of a god, much less the god of Christianity. One reason for this is that the presuppositions derived from their metaphysics (subconsciously) do not allow them to consider the possibility of anything non-material. This leads them to hold to an epistemology, or method for discovering truth, which rules out a priori1 any evidence that is not mathematically quantifiable or subject to empirical observation. In short, they rig the game in their favor. Perhaps another, less obvious, reason for this mistaken idea is that the New Atheists are only looking at the New (contemporary) Christians. While I certainly think it worthwhile to study the many outstanding works of modern philosophers and theologians, it would be a great misfortune for any student to ignore the great thinkers of the last few millenia. The history of Christian thought is so rich and full that to focus on the present would be to only see a small tip of the intellectual iceberg.

One of the most respected and influential philosopher theologians of the last two thousand years was a man named Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was an intellectual beast. And not just your ordinary, dog from the perspective of a kid, beast. We're talking rampage through the streets of Tokyo, beast. Consider the following quote about him:
Supreme unflappability was one of the hallmarks of Aquinas's character, along with a towering intellect, personal holiness, and single-minded devotion to God. Held captive by his brothers in the family castle in their failed attempt to prevent him from joining the Dominicans [, an Order of Preachers,] he took the opportunity to memorize the entire Bible and the four books of the Sentences of Peter Lombard. When the brothers upped the ante by sending a prostitute into his room, he famously chased her away with a flaming brand snatched from the fireplace and then used it to draw a cross on the wall, before he prayed for, and received, the gift of lifelong chastity. He could become so absorbed in a chain of abstract reasoning or in a prayer that he would sometimes forget where he was, fail to notice the flame from a candle he was holding as it burned his hand. His writings come to some eight million words, including the massive Summa Contra Gentiles and the Summa Theologiae, each of which clocks in at five thick volumes in the currently available popular editions (Edward Feser, The Last Superstition)
Born in Italy in 1225, Aquinas began receiving a university level education by the age of 14, and resolved to join the Dominican Order of priests by 19, having already memorized the entire Bible. He made it his life's work to defend the Christian faith against heretics and pagans alike, writing thousands of pages to accomplish this. Early on in his studies, Aquinas was introduced to the ideas of Aristotle, Averroes and Maimonides, who strongly influenced his philosophical work on the existence of God. Despite their differing beliefs (they were a Greek, a Muslim and a Jew, respectively), Aquinas was able to discern the truth in what these men taught, and salvage it from falsehood. He believed that truth is true wherever it might be found, and consequentially searched for it in unconventional sources (according to that time).

As mentioned in the above quote, his two most well known books are Summa Contra Gentiles, a nearly exhaustive defense of orthodox Christianity against its critics, and Summa Theologiae, an introductory level theological textbook for students of the faith. In the Summa Theologiae, one will find Aquinas' "Five Ways", a short summary of five proofs for the existence of God as First Cause or Creator. These summaries are usually mentioned in an Intro to Philosophy or Philosophy of Religion class, but are rarely treated with the kind of depth they require for real understanding. Very few opponents of Christianity, especially those of the New Atheism, really try to understand these arguments by doing the necessary background reading required for sound exegesis of such an old text. To his credit (of which he deserves so little), Richard Dawkins does discuss Aquinas' Five Ways in his book The God Delusion. To his fault, he completely misinterprets and misunderstands the arguments, opting to set up and demolish a straw man instead of doing the work required to enlighten himself.

Post two of this series will explain the metaphysics of Aquinas in order to provide a background to understand his arguments, which will be discussed in the third and fourth segments.


1. The term a priori is Latin for "from the earlier" and is used in several different contexts in philosophy. Informally, the term is often used to stand for a belief that is held before any evidence or argument is considered. When used this way, it is basically a synonym for "by presupposition." Formally, a priori is used to stand for knowledge which is justified through rational grounds alone, independent of any experience. The laws of logic are primary tools for discovering a priori truth. This is contrasted with a posteriori ("from the later")knowledge which is justified primarily through experience or empirical evidence.
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