What is a Thomist? The Contribution of John of St. Thomas


By Jörgen Vijgen, Ph.d.

EVER SINCE the Franciscan William de la Mare composed his Correctorium fratris Thomae towards the end of the 1270’s and in so doing provoked a rebuttal by five (mostly young English) Dominicans (the so-called ‘Korrektorienstreit’), the question regarding the essence and unity of Thomism has been part of the Thomist tradition.[1] Generally speaking, two approaches have been developed: a doctrinal approach and a methodological approach. In this post, I want to draw attention to a third approach which I would call a moral or psychological approach and which has been developed by John of St. Thomas.

John of Saint Thomas pic giovanni_di_san_tommaso-300.jpg

Let me briefly, however, describe the other two approaches. The doctrinal approach tries to capture the essence and unity of Thomism by identifying doctrinal positions and principles which are seen as integral to the thought of St. Thomas. This approach has a long history which goes back to the fierce debates between the Franciscans and the Dominicans towards the end of the 13th century but it was also present from an early stage within the Dominican Order. This becomes apparent in the case of the Dominican friar Durandus de Saint-Pourçain (ca. 1275- 1336). When he was seen as deviating from the teaching of St. Thomas in his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences in 1310-1312, the Master-General Bérenger de Landore convened a commission (consisting of Hervaeus Natalis, John of Napels, Petrus de Palude and others) to analyze Durandus’ writings. After the commission had drawn up its own a list of 93 censured propositions, John of Napels drew up a second list of 255 censured propositions. Interestingly, this second list gives not only the censured propositions but also indicates where the opposite proposition in St. Thomas’ writings can be found, often introduced by “contra Thomam”.[2] What this example shows, I think, is that by that time there existed within the Order an explicit awareness to approach St. Thomas’ thought as a body of doctrinal positions.[3] Over time, attempts have been made to reduce these doctrinal positions to one or more fundamental principles. In the 20th century, one recalls such giants of the Thomist tradition as Gallus Manser, O.P. (1866-1950)[4] and Norberto del Prado, O.P. (1852-1918)[5], who emphasized respectively the distinction between act and potency and essence and existence as the heart of the entire Thomistic philosophy. Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. (1877-1964) harmonized both approaches and emphasized the unity of the via inventionis and the via synthesis because both have as their terminus and principium “the supreme truth of Christian philosophy”, the clavis aurea totius aedificii of the Angelic Doctor, namely Deus est ipsum suum subsistens.[6]

The methodological approach, on the other hand, limits Thomism to a mere formal characteristic, a forma mentis which can be acquired by reading St. Thomas. Such an approach is often based on the claim that St. Thomas was able to bring faith and reason ‘into dialogue’. Just as St. Thomas revolutionized theology by bringing the faith into dialogue with the dominant philosophy of his time, Aristotelianism, the Thomist today should engage with the intellectual positions of our age.[7] While the acquisition of an intellectual habitus, based on this claim, is certainly important and laudable, the methodological approach has, under the influence of postmodern views regarding historicity and contextuality, inevitably led to a kenosis of doctrine. In this view, one reads St. Thomas in order to understand his “capacity to communicate” with the “challenges” of his time and place. From such an engagement with his writings one can become “encouraged” to explore the “existential questions” in an ever new way.[8] Moreover, and on the basis of such a perspective on Thomism as a mere and limitless formality, any attempt to construe Thomism as an anonymous Kantianism (Joseph Maréchal) or anonymous Hegelianism/Heidegerrianism (K. Rahner) seems entirely justified. Such a “Thomism-by-inspiration”[9] fails to see that the power of a philosophical and theological doctrine such as Thomism to assimilate later positions depends on the value and universality of the doctrinal principles of that same doctrine.[10]

These two approaches need not be in opposition and their complementarity can be spelled out in various ways.[11]

One way is to reflect upon the five marks (signa) of a Thomist developed by John of St. Thomas O.P. (1589-1644). He prefaces his much acclaimed Cursus theologicus, published between 1637 and 1667 in eight volumes, with a treatise entitled “Tractatus de approbatione et auctoritate doctrinae angelicae D. Thomae” (185-254; S 221-301).[12] Placing the treatise under St. Ambrose’s motto “the first thing which kindles ardor in learning is the greatness of the teacher” (from his De virginibus, Book 2, chapter 2), John intends to investigate the nature and extent of the approbation and authority conferred to St. Thomas’ doctrine. In the opening lines of the treatise, he quotes pope Urban V’s wish to the archbishop of Toulouse and to all the masters and doctors of the Toulouse university that one should follow the doctrine of St. Thomas as the true and Catholic doctrine and endeavor to spread it with all one’s power (D. Thomae doctrinam tamquam catholicam et veridicam sectari, eamque totis viribus ampliare, 185A; S 221).[13] John is of course aware that some have ascribed to St. Thomas dubious, indefensible and even erroneous propositions. The Church’s approbation of his doctrine entails that a vindication of St. Thomas is now not just a matter of one private person but of the Church as a whole (186 D; S 222). For this reason, the treatise will deal with both the nature of the Church’s approbation (Disputatio I) as well as with rebutting the false claims that have been made regarding a number of St. Thomas’ views (Disputatio II).

The last article of Disputatio II, article 5, is entitled “Quae ad veram intelligendam et discipulatum D. Thomae conducant?” (251-252; S 297-301). It starts with Pope Urban V’s quote: Divi Thomae doctrinam tamquam catholicam et veridicam sectari, eamque totis viribus ampliare.

This passage, John writes, contains two conditions which are constitutive of a true disciple of St. Thomas, that is to say: (1) to follow eagerly his doctrine as the true and Catholic doctrine and (2) to spread his doctrine with all one’s powers. Both these conditions, he continues, do not require that a disciple of St. Thomas understands his doctrine entirely nor that he cannot depart from his doctrine whatsoever. The reason this is so is that one is a disciple precisely in order to learn and acquire a true understanding of his doctrine. In this sense, being a Thomist is an end one tries to achieve and something which is accomplished by God rather than by one’s own efforts. One does not cease to be a true Thomist if one does not in everything arrive at the mind of St. Thomas, especially given the weakness of one’s own mind and the profundity of his teaching. On the contrary, the self-professing Thomist merely needs to follow and spread Aquinas’ doctrine. John emphasizes the virtue of intellectual and spiritual humility in so far as every Thomist is in a certain sense merely an aspiring Thomist who by God’s grace is being abled to make progress in understanding St. Thomas.

Pope Urban V’s description needs to be more specific because it is not enough for being a Thomist to merely claim one understands and develops his doctrine better than others do because the others will claim they are doing the same.[14] How is one therefore able to judge who is the true follower of St. Thomas, in particular when in many instances his doctrine is susceptible of various readings or when some passages fail to appear entirely intelligible?

For this reason, John will in the remainder of his treatise (251-254; S 297-301) propose five marks which make it possible to discern who is a true and worthy disciple of St. Thomas.

The first mark: when the mind of St. Thomas is not immediately clear, a true disciple of St. Thomas will adhere to those who over time have been his disciples: the continued succession of an interpretation has the greatest probative force (maximum locum et vim probationis habet continuata successio) (252; S 298). Explicitly named are Hervaeus Natalis, John Capreolus, Dominic of Flanders, Cajetan, de Vitoria and Dominicus de Soto. John opposes these true Thomists against those who attack or try to improve these commentators and brag about inventing a new understanding of his doctrine. In other words, one cannot call oneself a Thomist and at the same time militate against those who, over time, have been considered his legitimate disciples. Interestingly, John compares this approach to the correct understanding of Scripture. Using Tertullian’s saying “Every sort of thing must necessarily revert to its original for its classification” (Liber de Praescriptionibus, ch. 20), he argues that a similar approach is needed to understand Scripture correctly, that is to say, one’s understanding of Scripture must be shown to stand in a continued succession with the tradition of the faith and with the Church as founded by the Apostles. John is of course aware that there have been Thomists who strayed from St. Thomas’ doctrine. A distinction needs to be made, however, between those who attack and contradict St. Thomas – and therefore were not his disciples – and those who, in trying to follow his doctrine, came up with novel interpretations when St. Thomas’ own thought wasn’t entirely clear or his thought had not yet been made clear. In the latter case, these are still disciples of St. Thomas. Furthermore, the latter case concerns only a few Thomists who moreover tried to come to a better understanding of St. Thomas.  In other words, a Thomist must possess the virtue of intellectual honesty.

This basic attitude towards the Thomist tradition leads John to the second mark of a true Thomist. He should work to defend and clarify his doctrine and not to find excuses to deviate from it. A true Thomist possesses a genuine “affectus” for St. Thomas’ doctrine and works to defend it, even if, because of the limits of his understanding and the difficulties of the matter, he does not always grasp the meaning of a certain teaching and even if he sometimes deviates from it as a consequence. When this “affectus” weakens, one is less inclined to carefully try to understand what St. Thomas says and he instead seeks excuses to deviate from him. John illustrates this point with a long quote from St. Augustine’s De utilitate credendi where it is argued that the correct understanding of Sacred Scriptures presupposes a genuine love for them.

The third mark of a true Thomist can be seen as an application of this “affectus”. In exposing the mind of St. Thomas, a true Thomist seeks not his own opinion nor an opinion which gains him applause from his colleagues. John approvingly quotes the following passage from Bernard of Clairvaux’s Sermon 13 on The Song of Songs: “You are indeed a faithful servant if you do not try to grasp for yourself the manifold glory of God, which, while not coming from you, nevertheless passes through you. This occurs when, in accord with the Lord's command, your light shines before men, not for your own glory but for that of your Father in heaven.” Someone who approaches St. Thomas in this way is careless and superficial and conveniently uses St. Thomas to put forward his own ideas rather than trying to understand the thought of St. Thomas.

On the basis of these three marks, it follows  - as a fourth mark - that a true and sincere disciple of St. Thomas cannot content  himself with repeating his conclusions while at the same time rejecting his arguments. Rather, he should explicate the arguments and, if there appear to be contrary positions within St. Thomas’ writings, try to harmonize them. Besides a careful study of the arguments and a search for harmony, one should also look for St. Thomas’ position in those passages where he clearly and explicitly treats a topic and not in secondary or obscure passages. In merely accepting his conclusions but not his arguments, one renders his thought without foundation: “sine ratione autem non est scientia nec doctrina.” Such an approach, moreover, shows that St. Thomas is not the Master who provides valid arguments. Finally, it is not in accordance with Pope Urban V’s wish to spread St. Thomas’ doctrine because by not taking into account his arguments one cuts the legs from under his positions and renders them ineffective (non est ampliare doctrinam, est detruncare et transmutare). In this regard, he quotes a famous text from Vincent of Lérins’ Commonitorium, chapter 23 regarding the possibility of progress (profectus): “Yet on condition that it be real progress, not alteration of the faith. For progress requires that the subject be enlarged in itself, alteration, that it be transformed into something else. The intelligence, then, the knowledge, the wisdom, as well of individuals as of all, as well of one man as of the whole Church, ought, in the course of ages and centuries, to increase and make much and vigorous progress; but yet only in its own kind; that is to say, in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning.”[15] And further from the same chapter: “For it is right that those ancient doctrines of heavenly philosophy should, as time goes on, be cared for, smoothed, polished; but not that they should be changed, not that they should be maimed, not that they should be mutilated. They may receive proof, illustration, definiteness; but they must retain withal their completeness, their integrity, their characteristic properties.” A true Thomist should do the same and always retain his doctrine in its integrity and completeness, something which cannot be done without affirming his arguments and harmonizing seeming contradictions. Only on this basis is it possible to fulfill the second condition mentioned by Pope Urban V, that is to say, to spread his doctrine with all one’s powers.

The fifth mark of a true disciple of St. Thomas needs no paraphrasing: “maior unitas et concordia in sequenda via et doctrina D. Thomae.” John admits that there has always been among Thomists discord and divisions which makes it difficult to discern who is a true follower of St. Thomas. As such this is part of reality because in that which is corruptible one will never find unity and concord without divisions. The fifth mark, therefore, does not entail a perfect and absolute unity but the effort to promote and conserve it. Again, he quotes from Tertullian’s Liber de Praescriptionibus, ch. 28: “When, however, that which is deposited among many is found to be one and the same, it is not the result of error, but of tradition.” Unity and concordance in explaining and following St. Thomas’ doctrine leads to an increase of his authority whereas division only leads to the opposite.

In the final paragraph of his treatise, John continues this conciliatory tone, giving the last word to St. Thomas himself: “In choosing or rejecting opinions of this kind a person should not be influenced either by a liking or dislike for the one introducing the opinion, but rather by the certainty of truth. We must therefore love both parties, namely, those whose opinion we follow, and those whose opinion we reject. For both have diligently sought the truth and have aided us in this matter. Yet we must be persuaded by the more certain, i.e., we must follow the opinion of those who have attained the truth with greater certitude.” (In XII Met. L. 9, no. 2566).

I have called this approach to the question “What is a Thomist” the moral or psychological (in the Thomist sense of the word) approach because, while clearly combining the doctrinal with the methodological approach, John’s emphasis lies on the intellectual and moral virtues required of a Thomist: humility, honesty, affectus and love for the truth, combined with a sense of realism regarding the human condition.


[1] For a small, accessible but brilliant recent book on this topic see Romanus Cessario O.P. and Cajetan Cuddy O.P., Thomas and the Thomists. The Achievement of Thomas Aquinas and His Interpreters (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press 2017), xvii, 151 p. as well as my review essay forthcoming in Nova & Vetera.

[2] These lists can be found in J. Koch, “Die Magister-Jahre des Durandus de S. Porciano O.P. und der Konflikt mit seinem Orden,” in: J. Koch, Kleine Schriften, Vol. 2 (Roma: Edizione di Storia e Letteratura, 1973), 78-118.

[3] For a slightly different assessment see M. Hoenen, “Thomas von Aquin und der Dominikanerorden. Lehrtraditionen bei den Mendikanten des späten Mittelalters,” in: Freiburger Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie 57 (2010), 260-285, especially p. 284, footnote 72.

[4] Das Wesen des Thomismus (Fribourg : Paulus Verlag, 1949³).

[5] De veritate fundamentali totius philosophiae christianae (Friburgi Helvetiorum: Ex typis consociationis Sancti Pauli, 1911).

[6] De Deo uno (Torino-Roma, Marietti, 1950), 24-26.

[7] See K. Rahner, “Bekenntnis zu Thomas von Aquin,” in Schriften zur Theologie X (Zürich: Benzinger, 1972), 11-20.

[8] Lydia Bendel-Maidl, Tradition und Innovation. Zur Dialektik von historischer und systematischer Perspektive in der  Theologie. Am  Beispiel  von  Transformationen  in  der Rezeption  des  Thomas  von  Aquin  im  20.  Jahrhundert (Münster:  LIT,  2004), 497. 

[9] Serge-Thomas Bonino, “To Be a Thomist,” in: Nova & Vetera (English) 8 (2010), 763-773.

[10] See Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Synthèse thomiste (Paris, 1947), 558-559.

[11] Indispensable in this regard are Serge-Thomas Bonino, “To Be a Thomist,” and also his “The Thomist Tradition,” Nova & Vetera (English) 8 (2010), 869-881 and Thomas Joseph White, “Thomism after Vatican II,” in: Nova & Vetera (English) 12 (2014), 1045-1063.

[12] Only the first four and part of the fifth volume are strictly speaking John’s work. The remainder of volume five to seven is by Diego Ramirez O.P. whereas volume eight is by François Combefis O.P.. I am using the so-called archetypal edition of volume I published in 1637, which can be consulted via the Post-Reformation Digital Library: www.prdl.org. The following page references in the text refer to this edition. These are followed by the page references from the Solemnes critical edition of which five volumes were published between 1931-1965. The treatise can be found in volume 1. The treatise summarized here is one of three treatises introducing the Cursus theologicus: first there is a summary exposition of the Sentences of Peter Lombard, followed by an analysis of the structuring principles of the Summa theologiae. This second treatise has been translated by Ralph McInerny, Introduction to the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas. The Isagoge of John of St. Thomas, St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, 2004.

[13] Bull Laudabilis Deus of August 31, 1368.

[14] Here one cannot but think of the many versions of Thomism currently in use.

[15] This text is central to the question of the development of dogma. See Eduardo Echeverria, Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma, Peter Lang, 2017.