Biography of Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Angels

'Dumb Ox' or Greatest Theologian of the Middle Ages?

Saint Thomas Aquinas
Saint Thomas Aquinas, Chromolithography by Louis Figuier, 1881.

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Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century Dominican friar, was a brilliant theologian, philosopher, and apologist of the medieval church. Neither handsome nor charismatic, he was afflicted with edema and lopsided eyes that produced a misshapen countenance. The overweight, socially awkward, slow-to-speak introvert was nicknamed “the dumb ox” by his classmates at university. Nonetheless, Thomas Aquinas is recognized today as the most significant voice in scholastic theology and biblical interpretation of the Middle Ages.

Fast Facts: Thomas Aquinas

  • Known For: Dominican friar and most influential church writer and theologian of the Middle Ages
  • Born: 1225, in Roccasecca, Italy
  • Died: March 7, 1274, Fossanova Abbey, Fossanova, Italy
  • Parents: Count Lundulf of Aquino and Theodora, Countess of Teano
  • Education: University of Naples and University of Paris
  • Published Works: Summa Theologica (Summary of Theology); Summa Contra Gentiles (Summary Against the Gentiles); Scriptum super Libros Sententiarium (Commentary on the Sentences); De anima (On the Soul); De Ente et Essentia (On Being and Essence); De Veritate (On Truth).
  • Notable Quote: Arguing against the view that Jesus Christ was merely a good teacher, Thomas Aquinas stated: “Christ was either liar, lunatic, or Lord.” 

Early Life

Thomas Aquinas was born in 1225 to Count Lundulf of Aquino and his wife, Theodora, in their family castle in Roccasecca, near Naples, Italy, in the Kingdom of Sicily. Thomas was the youngest of eight siblings. His mother was Countess of Teano. Although both parents descended from noble lines, the family was regarded as strictly lower nobility.

As a young teenager, while studying at the University of Naples, Aquinas secretly joined the Dominican order of friars. He was attracted by their emphasis on academic learning, poverty, purity, and obedience to a life of spiritual service. His family strongly opposed this choice, wanting Thomas to become a Benedictine instead and enjoy a more influential and affluent position in the church.

Taking extreme measure, Aquinas’ family held him captive for more than a year. In that time, they doggedly conspired to tempt him away from his course, offering him a prostitute and even a position as archbishop of Naples. Aquinas refused to be seduced and was soon sent to the University of Paris—the leading center for academic studies in Europe at the time—to study theology. There he gained the best theological education possible under the tutelage of Albert the Great. Quickly perceiving Aquinas’ intellectual capacity and potential to influence, his mentor declared, "We call this young man a dumb ox, but his bellowing in doctrine will one day resound throughout the world!"

Faith and Reason

Aquinas discovered philosophy to be his favorite field of study but sought to harmonize it with Christianity. In medieval thought, the challenge to reconcile the relationship between faith and reason emerged front and center. Able to distinguish between the two, Aquinas saw the theological tenets of faith and the philosophical principles of reason not as contradictory, but as fountains of knowledge both proceeding from God.

Because Aquinas adapted the philosophical methods and principles of Aristotle into his theology, he was challenged as an innovator by many of the Paris masters in theology. These men already held a general dislike for Dominicans and Franciscans. As a result, they resisted his entrance into the ranks of professor. But when the pope himself intervened, Aquinas was soon admitted. He spent the remainder of his life teaching theology in Paris, Ostia, Viterbo, Anagni, Perugia, Bologna, Rome, and Naples.

St Thomas Aquinas in office of holy sacrament
St Thomas Aquinas in office of holy sacrament; Illustration from painting by Louis Roux, 1877. De Agostini / Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Getty Images

Doctor of the Angels

So pure was the quality of Thomas Aquinas’ intellect that he received the title “Doctor of the Angels.” Adding to his extensive knowledge of the Scriptures, he integrated all the great works of the Eastern and Western Church Fathers, especially Saint Augustine, Peter Lombard, and Boethius.

In his lifetime, Aquinas wrote more than 60 works ranging from Bible exposition to apologetics, philosophy, and theology. While in Rome, he completed the first of his two masterpieces, Summa Contra Gentiles an apologetical summary of doctrine meant to convince unbelievers of the reasonableness of the Christian faith.

Not only was Aquinas a man of intellectual studies, but he also wrote hymns, was devoted to prayer, and took time to counsel his fellow spiritual shepherds. Considered his finest masterwork, Summa Theologica, is not only a timeless textbook on Christian doctrine but also a practical guidebook packed with wisdom for pastors and spiritual leaders.

The surviving Bible commentaries of Aquinas include the book of Job, an unfinished commentary on the Psalms, Isaiah, the epistles of Paul, and the Gospels of John and Matthew. He also published a commentary on the four Gospels compiled from the writings of Greek and Latin Church Fathers titled the Catena Aurea.

In 1272, Aquinas helped establish a Dominican school for theological studies in Naples. While in Naples, on December 6, 1273, he had a supernatural vision after a Mass during the feast of St. Nicholas. Although he had experienced many visions before, this one was unique. It convinced Thomas that all his writings were insignificant in light of what had been revealed to him by God. When urged to continue his writing, Aquinas responded, "I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value." Aquinas set down his pen and never wrote another word.

In spite of being his most significant and influential work, Summa Theologica remained unfinished when Aquinas died only three months later. In early 1274, Thomas was invited to attend the Second Council of Lyons to help bridge the widening gap between the Eastern and Western Churches. But he never made it to France. While traveling there on foot, Thomas Aquinas became ill and passed away at the Cistercian Monastery of Fossanova Abbey on March 7, 1274.

Summa Contra Gentiles by Thomas Aquinas
Summa Contra Gentiles, theological work by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Getty Images

Saint Thomas Aquinas

Fifty years after his death, on July, 18 1323, Aquinas was canonized a saint by Pope John XXII and the Roman Catholic Church. At the Council of Trent in the 16th-century, his Summa Theologica was honored with a place of prominence alongside the Bible. In 1567, Pope Pius V named Thomas Aquinas “Doctor of the Church.” And in the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII commended the works of Aquinas to be taught at all Catholic seminaries and theological faculties around the world.

Today, Thomas Aquinas is still studied by Bible students and theological scholars of all denominations, including evangelicals. He was a devout believer, uncompromising in his commitment to Jesus Christ, the study of Scripture, and prayer. His works are timeless and undeniably worth reading.

Sources

  • 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (p. 30).
  • The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, (Vol. 2, p. 38).
  • “Thomas Aquinas.” Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (p. 725).
  • An Introduction to Ecclesiastical Latin (p. 148).