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Thomas Aquinas, man of dialogue?

From an evangelical standpoint, his problem is not in the details or some compartments of his thought but in the fabric of his system that is permeated by a thoroughgoing optimism in human capabilities.

VATICAN FILES AUTOR 9/Leonardo_De_Chirico 03 DE JUNIO DE 2024 08:29 h
St Thomas Aquinas writing the sequence hymn of Corpus Christi is on the facade of the church of St Joachim in Rome. / Photo: [link]Lawrence OP[/link], Wikipedia, CC.

How can a man who lived 800 years ago be taken as a model of “dialogue” to deal with the cultural fragmentation and winds of war blowing through the world today? This was the question behind a major conference held in Naples (25-27 April) to mark the 750th anniversary of Thomas Aquinas's death (1274).



The conference's title was “St. Thomas Aquinas. Man of the Mediterranean, Man of Dialogue,” and it was held partly at the Pontifical Theological Seminary of Southern Italy and partly at the Dominican Convent of Madonna dell’Arco.



Twenty-five papers were presented including some by leading Italian scholars of Thomas, both Dominicans (e.g., Serge-Thomas Bonino, Angelicum, Rome; Giuseppe Barzaghi, Bologna; Giorgio Carbone, Bologna), university academics (e.g., Pasquale Porro, University of Turin; Luciano Malusa, University of Padua) and prominent Roman Catholic theologians (e.g., Antonio Staglianò, president of the Pontifical Academy of Theology).



The conference had three sections: 1. Thomas and Naples, 2. Thomas as a man of dialogue, and 3. Thomas and the dialogues of the 21st century. It aimed to highlight the comprehensive scope of Thomas's thought, which can include and encompass the concerns of the dialogue partner in a greater whole.



This is why he was referred to as a model of “dialogue”: his thought does not oppose what is different, does not reduce it, but enmeshes it by integrating and expanding it.



 



A Snapshot of the Conference



Thomas Aquinas was presented by S.T. Bonino as a “catholic” intellectual who could gather the thoughts of other philosophers and theologians, purify them, and recapitulate them in Catholic fullness. As J. Ellul argued, Thomas could leverage the principles of “natural reason” and thus invited interlocutors of other faiths, e.g., Muslims, to reason with him by assuming the universal possibility of “right” reason. As a way of application, what we need in our world is not the kind of reason that polarizes issues and people but the one that can build bridges between them. Thomas is a champion of this approach.



According to M. Benedict, reason is the hinge that holds together his dialogue and confrontation with the Jews. According to F. Tramontano, Thomas argues that reason is accessible to all, especially in the Summa contra Gentiles; against this background, Aquinas challenges non-Christians to use reason to arrive at what all can attain and then open themselves to faith.



A. Cortesi went as far as saying that as for today’s inter-religious dialogue, Thomas helps to see “more” of reality that will make us discover “more” of truth to make “more” friends among us. These are just a few insights that help to get an idea of what was presented at the conference.



This understanding of Thomas serves the catholicity of Roman Catholicism, i.e. its willingness and ability to include all in its synthesis. Today, it has a very attractive and inviting trajectory. Still, it loses sight of the integrity of the biblical gospel because it underestimates the devastating effects of sin on all life, including reason. It also loses sight of the antitheses of the gospel (“God vs the idols,” “either with me or against me,” “light vs darkness,” “sin vs holiness”), and the call to take every thought captive to Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) instead of flirting with the thought-patterns of the world. What was presented was a fascinating, welcoming, non-oppositional Thomism, inviting one to participate in the extended synthesis that Roman Catholicism aspires to, i.e. Bible and traditions, nature and grace, faith and reason, Christians and non-Christians, Christianity and religions.



 



On Elenctic and Eclectic Readings of Thomas



As the only evangelical scholar contributing to the conference, my paper was entitled “Between Eclectic Reading and Elenctic Theology: Thomas Aquinas in the Reception of Protestant Theology.” In it, I identified two ways of reading Thomas that have been common on the evangelical side: on the one hand, the “elenctic” one (i.e., objecting and refuting), of those who approached him to challenge his system (Martin Luther is the chief example, Francis Schaeffer is the latest); on the other, the “eclectic” one (i.e. appropriating sections and parts), of those who used him in a selected and circumstantial way, taking cues here and there from his thought, always maintaining a certain distance from his system (Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr Vermigli are examples in the sixteenth century, Francis Turretin in the seventeenth century, Herman Bavinck in the last century).



On the Reformation’s side, the long history of Protestant interactions with Thomas Aquinas can be summarized with a series of theological exercises between evangelical eclecticism and elenctics. On the one hand, Thomas was never considered as belonging to the Protestant camp as if he were a proto-Reformer. On the other, he did belong to the Medieval tradition with which the Reformation has always been in critical dialogue, at times retrieving and expanding it, other times radically departing from it. The best link that can be established is eclectic, on a case-by-case, issue-by-issue basis, with strong resistance, if not opposition, to embrace Thomas and Thomism as shapers of the theological architecture of Protestant thought.



Protestant discomfort with Thomas concerned his view of the nature-grace relationship and its repercussions on understanding and living out of the Christian faith. His overly positive view of human reason and his too-optimistic trust in it are signs of Aquinas’s moderate consideration of the effects of sin. Thomas seems to concede too much to natural reason and too little to the disruptive consequences of sin.



From an evangelical standpoint, his problem is not in the details or some compartments of his thought (which can be brilliant as they mirror Scripture’s teaching) but in the fabric of his system that is permeated by a thoroughgoing optimism in human capabilities. This was the conclusion of my paper.



Having an evangelical voice contribute to this academic conference on Thomas was important. The lesson of historical evangelical theology should be kept in mind by present-day retrievers of Thomas: between elenctic (critical) and eclectic (selected appropriation) reading lies what is the proper approach for evangelical faith vis-à-vis Thomas Aquinas and tradition in general, always to be subject to the supreme scrutiny of Scripture.



P.S. For a more in-depth evangelical study of Thomas, I just published the book Engaging Thomas Aquinas. An Evangelical Approach (London: Apollos, 2024).



Leonardo De Chirico, theologian and evangelical pastor in Rome (Italy).



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