Aquinas on God the Teacher

In my thesis, I’m looking at the commentaries of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin on 1 Corinthians, specifically the first four chapters. This may seem an odd choice for these two great thinkers; normally one looks to Aquinas’ Summa theologiae or Calvin’s Institutes to understand their thought. I’m doing that too, but I’m interested in their biblical commentaries for a few reasons. First, because this work is what occupied both of them for most of their lives: Aquinas spent his university career as a “master of the sacred page,” lecturing to students on the books of the Bible, while Calvin preached at least once a day for most of his life, and spent a lot of his so-called spare time writing commentaries on the Bible–in the end, he produced commentaries on almost the whole of Scripture. Second, the thought of their major, more systematic works, is drenched in the understanding they drew from their constant immersion in the Bible. For Calvin, this is obvious; for Aquinas, it is increasingly being recognized. (In the Summa theologiae, we now know statistically, Scripture is quoted more than all other sources combined.) Finally, the task of commenting on the Bible holds a person to certain limits; one must follow the text closely and be faithful to its direction and path of argument or expression. This leads Aquinas especially to say things he doesn’t say elsewhere, which is interesting in itself. But beyond its interest, it is deeply instructive to see how these two great masters of the Bible read the text through which, they both agree, God leads us to salvation.

With that apologia out of the way, let us look at one particular comment from Aquinas’ commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:21, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world in its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” Here Aquinas shows us how God dispensed his wisdom like a good teacher:

Then, when he says, “For since, in the wisdom of God,” etc., he designates the reason why the faithful are saved through the foolishness of preaching. And this is what he said before, that is, that “the word of cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:20). “For it pleased God through the foolishness of preaching,” that is, through the preaching which human wisdom considers foolish, “to save those who believe” (1:21b). And this because the world, that is, the worldly, did not know God through the wisdom which is grasped from the things of the world, and this “in the wisdom of God” (1:21a). For creating the world in divine wisdom, God built (instruit, also “instructs”) her judgments into the things of the world. As it says in Sirach 1:9, “He poured her out upon all his works,” so that the creatures themselves, made through the wisdom of God, are positioned toward the wisdom of God (se habent ad Dei sapientiam), carrying her judgments, just like the words of a person to his wisdom which they signify. And just as a student attains the knowledge of the wisdom of the teacher through the words which she hears from him, so a person was able to attain the knowledge of the wisdom of God through considering the creatures made by him. As it says in Romans 1:20, “The invisible things of God are understood through perceiving what has been made.” But humanity wandered from the right path of divine knowledge because of the vanity of their heart. For this reason, it says in John 1:10, “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and yet the world did not know him.” And therefore, God led the faithful to saving knowledge of him through other things which are not found in the forms (rationibus) of creatures themselves. For this reason, these other things were considered foolish by worldly people, who only consider the forms (rationes) of human things. And these other such things are the teachings of faith. It is just like a teacher who, seeing that his meaning was not grasped by his hearers through the words he spoke, desires to use other words through which he can clarify what he has in his heart. (In I Cor. 1.3.55)

So how was “God pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe”? Because those people the world calls “wise” did not think anything of the things God did to save his people, because they only pay attention to created things. But God brought salvation through the cross of Jesus, something they thought foolish and impossible: how can God suffer and die? Why would God undergo that shame? So it pleased God to lead his faithful to himself through these things, rather than through the creatures the “wise” think so important. He used these other things, the things which faith teaches, to lead people to salvation, because like a good teacher, he wanted to make sure people did not misunderstand what is in his heart.

I’ll be giving a paper on this theme in Aquinas’ commentary at a conference in Cambridge coming up, 3-4 December. Hopefully I’ll be able to convey some of the excitement I have about themes like this in Aquinas’ work!

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