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What We Can Learn From Thomas Aquinas As The Master Teacher

By Fr. Sean McDermott

Illustration from painting by Louis Roux, 1877. De Agostini / Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Getty Images

We all know that St. Thomas Aquinas was a great, perhaps the greatest, theologian of the Western Church. What is less known is that Thomas was a masterful teacher — and how. In fact, his genius lies as much in his incredible ability to teach than in what he actually wrote. The mode of his presentation and the organization of his works effectively communicate the theological content. Thomas’ paedological prowess was not bound to the small circle of clerics at the most prestigious universities--half of his teaching career was spent training the average Dominican to go out into the world as preachers and pastors. The Dominican Provincial Chapter saw this particular skill and elected him to start his own school according to his methods both at Santa Sabina (1262-1268) and then again at Naples (1272-1274) where he died. Interestingly, it was while he was at these posts that he was also working on the Summa Theologiae. This work in particular shows Thomas’ brilliance as a teacher.

The Summa was, in part, a response to the great deficiencies in theological education at that time that Thomas perceived. In the prologue to the Summa, Thomas details these problems:

“We have considered that students in this science [Theology] have not seldom been hampered by what they have found written by other authors, partly on account of the multiplication of useless questions, articles, and arguments, partly also because those things that are needful for them to know are not taught according to the order of the subject-matter, but according as the plan of the book might require, or the occasion of the argument offer, partly, too, because frequent repetition brought weariness and confusion to the minds of the readers.”

Thomas acknowledges three principle errors of the previous methods of teaching: (1) unnecessary content, (2) the order of the content was scattered, and (3) the manner of presentation of the content wearied students. The Summa, therefore, counters these problems by ordering the correct content in a manageable series of questions. This is the brilliance of the Summa. Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P. writes:

“Instead of proposing a simple series of questions to be followed without close links to one another, he offers a synthesis that already generates knowledge by its very emphasis on interconnections and internal coherence. The great originality of the Summa lies not in its content--to a very large degree, Thomas is happy to reproduce traditional Christian teaching, and his dependence on numerous philosophers and theologians show as much--but in its organization” (Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (Vol II), trans. Robert Royal; Catholic University of America Press: 2003, 54).

We have much to learn, then, from Thomas’ organization and method of theology, what he calls the ‘order of knowing’ (ordo disciplinae). The first two questions (Thomas breaks up different topics into ‘Questions’ that have many ‘Articles’ which explain the topic) in the Summa illuminate Thomas’ principles of this order.

First, Thomas begins the Summa with the end in mind. Content wise, he lays out the entire outline of Summa succinctly in the prologue to the second question:

“Because the chief aim of sacred doctrine is to teach the knowledge of God, not only as He is in Himself, but also as He is the beginning of things and their last end, and especially of rational creatures, as is clear from what has been already said, therefore, in our endeavor to expound this science, we shall treat: (1) Of God; (2) Of the rational creature's advance towards God; (3) Of Christ, Who as man, is our way to God” (IA.Q2.prologue).

Without knowing the whole outline, both the teacher and the student will walk through the content of their course on an obscure path. Once the end is set clarity reigns, and clarity brings greater understanding.

Second, Thomas works step-by-step in a direct method. Because the whole course of theology is known, Thomas is able to lead his students with purpose. This is clearly seen by the start of the Summa. It might surprise readers that the first question is actually not about God or a theological topic, per se. It is about theology itself. Thomas uses the first question to discuss the purpose and limits of theology. This might seem out of place, but this question introduces the project and his method at once. By defining the meaning of theology and its sources of authority, Thomas helps his students understand what they are doing in their studies and how to undertake such an endeavor. This helps his readers see not only his method but also the type of work they will tackle.

Third, Thomas plants seeds of understanding first that will germinate later. It always amazes me how quickly Thomas brings up profound theological insights. For example, while Thomas discusses whether theology can be argued (1A.Q1.A8), he introduces the idea of grace perfecting nature because human reason can bring clarity to sacred doctrine: “Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it, natural reason should minister to faith as the natural bent of the will ministers to charity” (IA.Q1.A8.ad2). He has yet to fully explain how grace perfects nature, but the seed has been planted and it will flourish throughout the Summa! This is an important principle in the ‘order of knowing’ and is directly connected with my final point.

Thomas knows the limits and mode of human knowing. As a good teacher, Thomas is keenly aware of his students’ ability and process of knowing. This might seem laughable for those who have sat down to try to read the Summa, but I firmly believe it is a text that can be tackled by any student. It is accessible because Thomas knows he cannot present all of theology at once but leads the student with a method that parallels natural human understanding. Not only does he use images and explanations to help his students learn, he offers new material and ideas in a way that builds upon previous knowledge. It still might take someone a very long time to come to personal understanding of the second question, but I guarantee that the third question will build upon the second in a logical way.

We could explore many different applications of this order. In a second essay, I will apply Thomas’ method to education in a parish setting, a setting with which Thomas was familiar.

Fr. Sean McDermott is Curate at All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, VA and Editor in Chief of Earth & Altar.


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