Tomorrow the Western Church commemorates St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274). What should we learn from this Doctor of the Church? A lot.
For generations he was required study for Roman Catholics preparing for priesthood — no small influence there.
He was also the whipping boy of the Reformation — Luther and Calvin disliked him a lot, especially for the way he used the philosophy of Aristotle.
Christians are bound to differ on any single theological point he made.
But today’s Christ-followers should all imitate him on one thing:
He took the time to understand both sides.
Listen to Christians in the public sphere on almost any topic. We often sound like there is only one answer that an intelligent or faithful person could possibly give. The hotter the issue, the more strident our one-sidedness.
This despite the obvious fact that on most of our hot issues we are arguing with other Christians. Since both sides are all warmed up for their views, passionate Christians obviously do hold different views.
We sound shrill and look foolish. It is an embarrassment to the Gospel.
Enter Thomas Aquinas and his masterful, incomplete Summa Theologiae (aka Summa Theologica). I describe it to my students as a medieval cathedral of the mind: each idea convincingly argued becomes a brick to build on. Layer by convincing layer, he presents his theology systematically and coherently.
In the midst of those convincing arguments, on every page he spends almost as much ink explaining opponents’ views as he does on his own.
He worked through the questions in a highly structured, stylized way:
1. He posed a question.
2. He raised a whole series of answers on one side of that question, supporting them with Scripture and reason.
3. He offered one statement from scripture or a great theologian that goes the opposite way, followed by a cogent explanation of this, his own view.
4. He gives a biblical and rational answer to every one of the arguments raised by the other side in part #2.
When students read Thomas for the first time they almost always get lost. Reading #2 they become convinced that it is the right answer — Thomas gives so many solid arguments they figure it has to be what he wants them to believe.
Then they get to #3 and confusion sets in: How come he is saying that his own view is the opposite of what he just spent half a page on?
They have never before encountered a Christian who spent so much time and energy articulating the views of the other side.
Then heaven help them when they get to #4.
They have never before encountered a Christian who took the opposing side so seriously that he offered clear counter-arguments to every single one of their points.
If you want to find Thomas’ views on a question, just read the part I’ve called #3. But if you want a model of fair-minded Christian argument, take a good look at #2 and #4. Go back and forth between the views he opposes and the arguments he offers to refute them.
If you want to convince your neighbor of your point, love your neighbor first.
Love your neighbors by showing that you can articulate their views as well as they can.
Who comes to mind as a role model of Christian fair-mindedness and love in disagreement today?
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