Monday, January 28, 2013

Why we call him "The Angelic Doctor"

January 28th, Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas
The Common Doctor, St. Thomas is often referred to as “Aquinas” after his hometown of Aquino. His most beloved title, however, is the “Angelic Doctor” – and it is this designation which inspires the greatest devotion to the saintly Dominican theologian.
Why is St. Thomas Aquinas properly called the “Angelic Doctor”, the “Angelic Thomas”, and the “Angel of the Schools”?

The titles of Church Doctors
The Doctors of the Church are often designated according to specific epithets which express their characteristic excellence.
Hence, St. Augustine is the “Doctor of Grace” as he was particularly important in developing the Church’s theology of grace. St. Francis de Sales is the “Doctor of Charity” as he was most gentle and filled with love. St. John of the Cross is the “Mystical Doctor” since his writings expound the way of mystical union with God. Et cetera.
St. Thomas Aquinas, however, is called the “Common Doctor” (not to be confused with the “Universal Doctor”, St. Albert who wrote on nearly every subject including the natural sciences). St. Thomas is called the “Common Doctor” because his learning is so great and excellent as to make him the Doctor of not merely any one specific area of theology, but rather of every area and of all theology together.
Thus, as St. Augustine holds a primacy in the theology of grace, and St. John of the Cross in spiritual theology, St. Thomas Aquinas is the sure guide and master in every area of theological inquiry. He towers above all the others as not merely the greatest theologian, but a true Angel sent from heaven to impart knowledge to the Church on earth.
Thus, St. Thomas is called, most especially, the Angelic Doctor – and this surname inspires the greatest piety among the faithful.
Angelic purity
St. Thomas is called “Angelic” on account of his great purity. After an incident in which he gained perfect purity through struggling against a certain temptress forced upon him by his family (who were trying to keep him from becoming a Dominican), St. Thomas was girded with a mystical belt of purity by two angels.
Now, since purity is most especially a quality of the angels – who neither are given nor give themselves in marriage – it is fitting that the most pure St. Thomas should be compared to these celestial spirits.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that St. Thomas’ treatment of issues related to human sexuality is marked by his great purity, such that he is able to affirm what is good without scruple.
Angelic doctrine
Moreover, St. Thomas is called the “Angelic Doctor” insofar as he is the expert on the doctrine of angels. More than any other writer (not excepting even the great St. Dionysius), St. Thomas has influenced the Church’s doctrine on the angelic spirits.
Among many notable points which St. Thomas taught regarding the angels, we specify the following:
That there are three hierarchies in which reside nine choirs of angels, that Lucifer began in the state of grace before falling, that there are more angels than specks of dust in the universe, that “angel” refers not to a nature but to the ministry of being a messenger, that each “angel” is its own species, and that angels have no bodies but are pure spirits (a point disputed even by the great St. Bonaventure).
The Angelic St. Thomas has greatly influenced the Church’s teaching and the peoples devotion regarding the angels.
Angelic wisdom
Again, we assert that St. Thomas is “angelic” insofar as his wisdom is likened to that of the angels. As pure spirits, the angels are not limited to the particulars of discursive reasoning, but see the whole of doctrine as one in a single unified vision. Thus, the angels are able to grasp the great unity of all theology – and this is the essence of wisdom.
St. Thomas, likewise, excels every other theologian in this point. He is able to see the essential unity of all theology in God. Thus, even in a large work like the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas is always able to place the particular question at hand within the larger context of theology.
While the Angelic Thomas is excellent in every detail, he never once loses the forest for the trees.
Angelic piety
Further, as the angels are far more rational than men, yet they are also far more pious. In them, learning does not work against but rather strengthens devotion. And this is true also in the case of the Angelic Thomas.
Sadly, in our own day, great learning often seems to be coupled with some level of doubt and even loss of faith – but, with St. Thomas, this is not the case. Rather, as one reads and understands the Common Doctor, he is then brought to a greater and greater devotion through this reasoning about the faith.
The great gift of St. Thomas was to connect reason with piety. We take occasion here to note that the superb Thomistic theologian Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (some of whose works are linked in the right side-column) is also notable for this trait.
An Angelic guide
Finally, though there are many more, I will add only one further sense in which St. Thomas is rightly called “angelic” – as the angel guardian serve as guides for the soul, so too St. Thomas is a true guide for the children of the Church in all areas of theology.
The Second Vatican Council teaches this in reference to seminary training for future priests:
“In order that they may illumine the mysteries of salvation as completely as possible, the students should learn to penetrate them more deeply with the help of speculation, under the guidance of St. Thomas, and to perceive their interconnections.” (Optatum Totius 16)
This deeper penetration of the mysteries of faith, which the Council (and also Canon 252 of the Code of Canon Law) demands of those to be ordained priests, is meant to be accomplished with St. Thomas as teacher and guide.
St. Thomas is thus rightly called the “Angel of the Schools” insofar as he serves as a sort of angelic guardian and guide for the schools and systems of theology. So long as they remain under his protection and care, not only will they penetrate to the riches of dogmatic theology and Sacred Scripture, but their minds will be freed from the many unsound and pernicious doctrines of the modern world which far too often have crept into many books of theology and have penetrated into the minds of so many priests and laity.
When we pray to our guardian angel we ask him to be out our side “to light, to guard, to rule, to guide.” This same prayer can be appropriated to the Angelic Thomas: that his teaching may enlighten our minds, may guard us from all error, may rule over us as indeed he rules as the Common Doctor in the Church, and to guide us to the deepest penetration of the mysteries of salvation.

O Angelic Thomas, Pray for us!


Clinton R. said...

St. Thomas Aquinas and his great work "Summa Theologica" has greatly helped me understand our beautiful Catholic faith.

St. Thomas Aquinas, ora pro nobis

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

Several of the supposedly "unique" Thomistic additions to our theology of the angels were in fact quite commonplace in theology before the Doctor turned his pen to them. For example, the angelic choirs and hierarchies and Lucifer's place within (and then without) them, are rooted in patristic teaching and are common throughout the Middle Ages. Likewise, the idea that angels are purely spiritual beings without bodies, and that "angel" is a ministry (angelos was the common Greek word for "messenger" for centuries before Christ was even born) is patristic, not scholastic, in origin. We do ourselves a disservice when we condense all of theology into Thomas's hands, for we thereby dismiss the important contributions made by theologians before and after him, and run the risk of confusing scholasticism with all of theology.

As great as the Common Doctor was, his contributions to the Church were often not in originality but in clarity and organization. The Summa gathers in one (very big) place what before might have been scattered amongst dozens or hundreds of more specific treatises. Furthermore, its scholastic style of cut-and-paste often elides or obscures important points about divine knowledge that are contained in other (especially patristic and mystical) texts, where the rhetorical and spiritual journey of the entire text contains its own teaching that transcends any particular sentence or paragraph. Theology is not just about content--it's also about spiritual pilgrimage.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

While it is true that St. Thomas excels all others in presenting a unified vision and synthesis of all theology up to his time ... I would insist that he was quite original in his thought as well.

For example, you fail to recognize just how significant it was for the Angelic Thomas to claim that angels are pure spirits ... this claim could not be accounted for by any of the metaphysical systems before St. Thomas. Indeed, his great addition to philosophy is the claim that there is a real distinction between essence and existence -- and this is what allows him to claim that angels are pure spirits without being purely simple (and therefore gods).

It was because St. Bonaventure did not have so advanced a metaphysical system that he thought angels to have a "subtle matter" as it were.

As to your final snub against scholasticism as failing in "spiritual journey" ... that sounds more like an excuse for intellectual sloth than an authentic mystical ascent.

Marko Ivančičević said...

Indeed i have seen in st. Thomas a greatest theologian of all times. I rejoice while i read the Summa. My love for theology and for God is enkindled by reading Thomas' works.

And i also, like Thomas, want to understand God more deeply, because i want to love Him more deeply. Also i want to understand Him because i love Him(although very insufficiently) - whom you love, Him you want to know better.

When i read st. Thomas i have a need for beatific vision. I want it. I want to be saved. I want to enjoy eternity, God.

And to all who love patristic theology and exalt it on the expense of scholasticism(by bashing scholasticism) i tell you this. Read st. Thomas. You all think there is some oposition between the Fathers and st. Thomas. There is none. In fact - Fathers are what st. Thomas is referring to most of the time to prove his point. Thinking that this... fluid pseudo-earlychurch spiritualistic doctrinal primitivism is somehow a priori "more right" than scholasticism, because scholastic theology got into detail is just plain wrong.

bill bannon said...

What do you think Aquinas would opine today on non delayed ensoulment thinking (none falling under infallibility) which has predominated for about three centuries now though delayed ensoulment lasted longer thus far historically?

Lee Faber said...

Father, Bonaventure did not hold that the angels had 'corporeal' or 'subtle' matter, but that they were pure spirits. Spiritual matter is not corporeal matter, but is simply a principle of potentiality. In fact, Bonaventure is being more truly Aristotelian here, for he thinks that every form has a corresponding matter, since matter and form are correlated with potency and actuality. The reason for the disagreement with St. Thomas is because of their differences on the principle of individuation: Aquinas holds that it is matter (since angels have no matter, therefore one angel per species), while Bonaventure thought it was both matter and form.

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

I apologize if I gave the impression that I was trying to drive a wedge between scholasticism and patristics. Such was not my intention. The Angelic Doctor is, of course, of a mind with the Church and her Fathers, and his work provides both a wonderful guide to systematic theology and, as Fr. Erlenbusch points out, important advances in metaphysics (by synthesizing the Neoplatonic and the Aristotelian, guided always by the Word of God).

What probably read as sour grapes on my part is the annoying tendency, especially among non-historical (e.g. systematic) theologians to consider St. Thomas a catch-all and end-all of medieval theology. For those of us who study the history of that millennium of the Church's pilgrimage on earth, St. Thomas is of course a highlight, but he is hardly the only luminary. As a scholar of our newest, Visionary Doctor, who lived a century before St. Thomas and experienced the divine and taught about it ways completely different from the scholastic, I find it occasionally tiresome that the wealth of monastic theology from the twelfth century or the riches of mystical theology from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries receive short schrift in comparison to the scholastics.

Though I should be reminded (and humbled thereby) that this was written for the Angelic Doctor's feast day -- hardly an occasion not to honor him! St. Hildegard will have her day, too (in about eight months).

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I apologize for jumping too quickly! Yes, I agree with you that it would be very beneficial for us all to study the wealth of the monastic and mystic tradition! Indeed, what a blessing that you are studying St. Hildegard's writings (I myself would love to find more time of this as well!).

One of the things I love about St Thomas (as a man and as a theologian) is that he was so well trained in the Benedictine tradition -- his discussion of humility according to St. Benedict is quite profound.
Also, I believe that this tradition greatly influenced some of his scriptural commentaries ... but I will have to leave that for another post!

Peace to you! +

Anonymous said...

Great article Father. The only thing I would caution is to not place St .Thomas over and above the Thee Pillars of Truth within the Church: Tradition, Scripture and Magisterium. Even St. Thomas' great work must be read and understood in light of the above and in light of the doctrinal developments that have occured after his death.


Unknown said...

I have been reading a brief article on Thomas Aquinas in Spanish and I wanted to know more deep about his title as Angelic Doctor and I found this blessed page. Thanks a lot for your comments, will enrich my knowledges about our catholic faith. From Nicaragua Alex

Unknown said...

I thought I was the only one who realizes how heavenly His writings are...

So wonderful in theological content and language...


Thanks to you Father. I was really wondering as to why St. Thomas Aquinas is called as the angelic doctor. Thanks for the understanding that you have given me. i am doing my theological studies, and i discover that we are very limited to grasp the so great Divine Knowledge in our small head. But it was not so with the angelic doctor. I really admire St. Thomas, specially his dedication to the work of God as no one else against the will of his family. I read the book on St. Thomas by Chesterton. Its really superb. I recommend this book to all thomas lovers. God love.

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