St. Thomas Aquinas and Creation. Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

A number of weeks ago I discussed how, St. Augustine with his neo-Platonist perspective on reality, influenced his interpretation of Genesis Chapter 1: 28 for centuries.

I broke the flow of those articles to write about the celebrations of St. Patrick and Easter. In general, Celtic Christianity had a more positive perspective on the natural world because streams, mountains, rainbows and wells were revered in the pre-Christian Celtic cultures.  It stands to reason that, as Irish monks fanned out across Europe from the 6th to the 9th century, this more positive vision of creation began to gain ground.

This Celtic influence did not displace the works of St. Augustine, especially,  The Confessions and The City of God. He was certainly a colossus, whose influence, intensified rather than diminished as the centuries unfolded.  The modern mind might find it difficult to understand the reasons for Augustine’s extraordinary influence.  In general, in today’s world, modern learning and scholarship is future orientated.  One expects that the latest study on any topic, especially scientific ones, will be the most accurate and insightful, for the simple reason that the author has had access to both traditional and more up-to-date research.  Things were very different in the Middle Ages, even in the later part of the 11th century when the cutting edge of scholarship began to move from the rural based monasteries to the scholastic based schools in the newly resurgent towns and cities.  Foremost among these in the 12th and 13th centuries was the University of Paris.   Scholars in these schools assumed that the erudition and insight of ancient writing, whether from biblical sources, Church Fathers or even from the canon of ancient Greek writings, far surpassed the learning of contemporary scholars.  This is why Augustine’s work, like wine was seen to improve with age!

One of the main developments in the intellectual life of Europe in the High Middle Ages (1.000  to 1,300) was the discovery of the works of  Aristotle. As we saw in relation to Augustine, most of the Fathers of the Church, who used ancient Greek philosophy to underpin and explain the Christian faith, relied mainly on Plato or the neo-Platonists.

Between the 5th and 11th centuries, Christian writers had little time for Aristotle, partly because his writing style lacked any effusive language and partly because, with the exception of his writings on logic, few of Aristotle’s works were available in Latin.

After 1150 AD, translations of Aristotle began to appear in Europe.  Most of the translations and commentaries on Aristotle emerged from a thriving Islamic culture which was found in Southern Spain. It was there that Muslim authors such as Ibn Rushd, (1128 – 1198) better known to Christians as Averroes, wrote commentaries on Aristotle. These books found favour among scholastic theologians in the 13th century.  The best known of these theologians today is St. Thomas Aquinas 1225 – 1274. While Aquinas used many sources for his writings, he preferred Aristotle’s approach to knowledge. Aristotle believed that we can know the world around us directly  through our senses, in contrast to Platonists, who believed that the real world was located in idealistic principles.

As a philosopher Aquinas shared Aristotle’s views on many things. He agreed with Aristotle that ‘since nature makes nothing without some end in view, nothing to no purpose, it must be that nature has made (animals and plants) for the sake of humankind.[1] The idea that animals and plants were created for humankind was common teaching in Europe for many centuries.

It is easy, today to be critical and dismissive of such approaches,  but one has to remember that for Aristotle and Aquinas, it appeared that the Earth was merely a few millennia old and that humans and animals had shared the earth almost from the beginning.  In such a scenario, the belief that creation was there to serve humans made a lot of sense.

While remaining close to Aristotle in his philosophical reflections on the Earth, Aquinas sometimes viewed things quite differently when writing as a theologian. A case in point is in  the Summa, Part 1, Question 47, Article 1, where he argues that God created a variety of creatures so that his goodness might be communicated to them and reflected by them. He ends the article by stating that, the whole universe together participates in the divine goodness more perfectly and represents it better than any single creature whatever. The whole universe is the true Imago Dei for Aquinas not any one creature, even humankind.


[1] Aristotle, Politics, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1985, edition, p.79.

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