The following short essay appears in a new translation of a minor work of St. Thomas Aquinas: De Sortibus: A Letter to a Friend about the Casting of Lots, trans. Peter Carey (forthcoming in 2021 from Wipf & Stock). It is republished here with permission.
Hailing from an influential family in southern Italy, Thomas Aquinas encountered Aristotle and broad, inter-cultural currents in Naples, from age 13, which led to his joining the nascent Dominican order at age 18.
For the next 30 years, till his untimely death at age 48, Aquinas studied and taught theology, mostly at universities in Paris and Rome, in which he rose to prominence as a great scholar, teacher, and faithful servant of the Church. He did not speak English, or Middle English, and he never traveled to England. He would have known of the English people, and of England as the place to which the great missionary-evangelist St. Augustine of Canterbury was sent by Pope Gregory in 597.
Thomas also knew well the writings of St. Anselm of Canterbury, the scholar-archbishop of the 12th century, and of the early English Benedictine known as the Venerable Bede, both of whom contributed influentially to the first flowering of medieval theology, upon which foundation Aquinas built in his time. How, therefore, could Thomas Aquinas possibly have been an Anglican?
As a historical fact, he wasn’t. And yet Anglicans have read, appropriated, and imitated Aquinas as a Common Doctor — one of his nicknames — since the founding of the Church of England in the 16th century, and many Anglican teachers, including the immensely influential Richard Hooker (1554-1600), have suggested there is something “Thomistic” about the Anglican theological and spiritual tradition. By this, we have meant that the spirit of St. Thomas animates Anglican thinking and praying at its best, even when we have remained unaware of the debt.
I was taught this at seminary right from the start — sitting in the classroom of a devout Episcopalian at Yale Divinity School, who taught a seminar on Aquinas not as a “Roman Catholic” theologian per se but rather a broadly Catholic theologian whom all Christians may share, whose thinking is marked by a salutary breadth, generosity of spirit, and ecumenical sensibility.
Living as he did almost three hundred years before the 16th-century Reformation, Aquinas was of course not a Protestant, but neither was he anti-Protestant. In the context of the western half of Christendom in which he worked he was pre-denominational. He knew just one Church and devoted his life to the service of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:5-6), even as that commitment called forth from him a synthesizing of the Eastern, Greek-speaking part of the Christian world and the Western, Latin part.
Increasingly over the course of his short career, Aquinas sought to find common ground and to defend plurality wherever possible, drawing upon Latin and Greek sources in a bid to comprehend the whole of Christian teaching, and also to learn from non-Christians — Jews, Muslims, and ancient pagans — on the grounds that all truth is one, wherever it may be found.
Aquinas’s whole body of work may be characterized as scriptural, traditionary, and reasonable. It is scriptural, since Thomas makes clear that holy Scripture is the principal source and authority for Christian theology. It is traditionary as it labors to gather all the essentials of early Church and catholic teaching, East and West, so that nothing may be lost. It is reasonable in that philosophy, and consequent argument, occupy a particular place in theology on pedagogical grounds, so that truth in its fullness may be uncovered, understood, and defended.
Thomas famously puts these three together in the programmatic first question of his greatest work, the Summa of theology, when he says that Scripture is the first, “proper and necessary” authority in Christian theology, followed by the doctors of the Church who are “proper but only probable,” and philosophy, which is “extrinsic and only probable.” All three have their place by divine design, to accommodate human needs after the Fall.
As Thomas insists, God reveals to human beings what they need to know for their salvation because they could not have discovered it on their own by “natural reason.” These saving truths, given in Scripture and summarized in the creeds of the Church, constitute a wisdom that mirrors God’s own knowing, which is one and comprehends all things. Because everything exists thanks to God’s gracious creating, Christian theology rightly imitates God by tending reverently and respectfully to all that God has made, and in this way shows forth the unity of truth. In a famous phrase, “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.”
Thomas’s wonderful letter to his friend on casting lots (De Sortibus) displays this methodology perfectly. In a spirit of broad-minded, guileless generosity — Thomas always means what he says and seeks to be straightforward and fair — he takes three chapters to set out the question and consider it from all angles. Philosophical and scriptural authorities are marshaled mostly in a “natural” idiom to establish common touchstones concerning the operation of the human intellect and will and to propose a typology of lots (distributive, advisory, divining). In chapter four, Thomas starts to draw conclusions and we glimpse something of his teacherly mastery as he places the philosophical foundation into an explicitly theological context; for, “just as God’s wisdom causes all things to exist, so God also conserves and moves the same, directing all to their appointed end.”
On the appearance of God as principal actor, Thomas is able to organize a host of scriptural and traditional authorities to show that “human affairs aren’t totally subjected to a human inclination, but to a divine disposition,” namely, providence — a major marker of Thomas’s mature theology. Within this frame, the casting of lots may have its place as a seeking of divine judgment, under certain conditions: God should not be tested; “due reverence and devotion” must be observed; the matter should be sufficiently serious, not just “worldly;” and, critically, “divine inspiration” ought not be curtailed, which means for Thomas that lots are unlawful in the case of ecclesial elections. As Thomas writes, “it would commit an injustice to the Holy Spirit, who instructs human consciousness so that it judge correctly,” in keeping with St. Paul’s saying that “a spiritual person judges all things” (1 Cor. 2:15).
Anglicans — and many Christians — may find here an admirable balance and restraint, fed by theological seriousness, that is, a focus on God. Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher memorably said that Anglicans “have no doctrine of our own — we only possess the Catholic doctrine of the Catholic Church enshrined in the Catholic creeds.”
To be sure, Anglican life looks different, in some ways, from that of our Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant colleagues. In division, we have all had to make decisions about how best to order our churches and account for various voices, recognizing, as well, the need for continual reform. But Anglicans have also generally resisted developing new doctrines of our own, in recognition of the fact that we are not the whole — or one or true — Church, but a part of it.
From the start, and more so as time went on, Anglicans have maintained a lively sense of loyalty to and love of all sides of the conflict out of which we were born. Speaking both Protestant and Catholic, as it were, we have sought to serve consensus in the tradition of Aquinas. His preference for Scripture above all, his steadfast insistence upon divine initiative, and his placing of God the Trinity and Jesus Christ at the center of Christian theology have resonated with our reformed heritage.
By the same token, Thomas’s continual dependence on the early Church writers, his robust account of all the sacraments (with baptism and Eucharist taken as “principal”), and his interest in councils as means of consensus have made sense to us in a catholic and ecumenical key.
In this conception, Christian theology seeks moderation not for its own sake but with a view both to fairness and synthesis: wise sifting in service of unity, conscious of “the immense responsibility … to maintain unshaken those common traditions that we have inherited,” as Archbishop Fisher put it.
Common traditions, incorporating of course common prayer. With other Christians, Episcopalians mark the Feast Day of St. Thomas on January 28th each year. Here, too, and most basically, we turn to our brother Thomas as a common doctor.
Thomas Aquinas: pray for us.